Almeida Theatre, London N1
Opened 17 May
, 2007

It's not intended to be racist (and I apologise if it appears so) to note that different cultures respond to theatre with different degrees of vocality. It's also notable that the gasps and ejaculations sometimes heard in significantly black audiences have seldom in my experience resounded in the auditorium of the Almeida Theatre. They did so, though, on the press night of Big White Fog. Artistic director Michael Attenborough has said that he would like his theatre to be as diverse as the borough in which it is situated; this production of Theodore Ward's 1938 play about a black family in Chicago is both a clear signal in that direction and a long overdue extra-U.S. première for a strong, impassioned piece of writing.

Ward's play is full of historical points that have little or no resonance in Britain. We scarcely know of the Great Migration of 1915-1920 when hundreds of thousands of Southern rural black folk made their way to Northern cities, and Marcus Garvey, leader of a back-to-Africa movement in the 1920s and eventually imprisoned as a conman, is recognised in today's Britain only vaguely as a buzz-name in roots reggae lyrics. American socialism, too, seems more strident to us today perhaps because it was further outside the political mainstream, even during the Great Depression. And yet all these ingredients, so far from seeming distant or even academic, serve to enrich the drama.

The narrative arc is almost entirely predictable: the play follows the Mason family in a steady decline from 1922 to 1932, ending not unexpectedly with a fatality at the hands of The Man. The action lies in the interplay of ideas. Time and again Ward has his characters debate differing views of the way forward for black Americans. The separatism of father Victor's Garveyite views conflicts with the integrationism of his socialist son Lester; Victor's idealism repudiates the economic strategy of his brother-in-law, who becomes a rack-renting landlord in search of financial self-sufficiency; as the Depression begins to bite, daughter Wanda faces a more urgent and humiliating issue of principle versus pragmatism, having to decide whether to succumb in secret to a white sugar-daddy in order to pay the family's rent. There is even black-on-black racism, as Victor excoriates his mother-in-law as the illegitimate offspring of a rape by a white man and she in turn, proud of her "Dupree blood", uses the N-word on him. The title itself is Les's image of the impossibility of making any headway against an oppressive white establishment.

Ward's achievement, like August Wilson at his best (though without the fantastical episodes of the latter), is to keep these ideas firmly connected to people, rather than just being rhetorical positions loaded on to fleshly vehicles. More impressive still, amid all these privations and all this strife – we see mother desert daughter, brothers sunder, another sibling decline into wino-hood – there is not a single character who is not at bottom a good person. They differ only in their choice of path. The family is led by Danny Sapani's Victor, an imposing and articulate man whose clarity of perspective deserts him when it comes to the failings of Garveyism, and Jenny Jules as his wife Ella, who can smile and utter conciliating words even as her eyes betray the desperation with which she is trying to keep the household from shattering.

In one respect, the most trenchant point is made not in Ward's play itself, but in its performance history: it premiered under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, part of FDR's New Deal package to combat the Depression for all Americans regardless of colour or creed.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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