‘Fog’ rolls in to the Almeida

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie” isn’t the only play alarmists wrongly thought might cause riots. Back in 1938, riot police were on standby, unnecessarily as it turned out, for the Chicago premiere of Theodore Ward’s groundbreaking African-American play “Big White Fog.”

Almost 70 years on, the play will receive its European premiere on May 17 in Michael Attenborough‘s newly announced 2006-07 Almeida Theater season.

Ward, who had hit the road at age 14 after his mother’s death left his father with 11 children, worked on the railroad, then as a shoeshine and a bellhop before landing in jail for selling bootleg gin. It was there he took up writing. Upon his release, he wrote a one-act play that landed second place in a competition. That success spurred him to write “Fog,” his first full-length play.

Attenborough, who recently visited the U.S., where he met Ward’s two surviving daughters, is surprised the play isn’t better known, pointing out that it was written 20 years before “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Set in the Chicago slums beginning in 1922, “Fog” follows an extended black family across a decade spanning the Depression. Half the family supports the separatist arguments of “Back to Africa” proponent Marcus Garvey; the others believe they can share in the possibilities offered by the American Dream.

In other words, this is hardly a chamber piece (although some of the Almeida cast will be doubling). Attenborough will be hiring 16 black actors and two white, a bold undertaking for a theater that seats just 321 with a top price of £29.50 ($56). What enables him to mount work of this ambition are his theater’s finances.

“Public subsidy of around £900,000 ($1.7 million) a year accounts for 30% of our income,” explains Attenborough. “There’s another £1 million in box office, and we raise in excess of £1 million in sponsorship.

“When I came to the Almeida in 2002, I said to the board that I hope people would walk through the door and not know what to expect,” Attenborough continues. “This play fits my policy of aspiring to provide experiences you absolutely cannot find anywhere else. And that helps galvanize sponsors — they like to be seen to cause a flurry.”

Attenborough’s aim is borne out by the amount of world and European preems he has presented — in four years, he has overseen 16 new plays or translations. Another appears this week with the Nov. 17 opening of Charlotte Jones‘ “The Lightning Play,” to be followed in January by Frank McGuiness‘ new work, “There Came a Gypsy Riding,” starring Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton.

Moria Buffini‘s “Dying for It” — a free adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s wild satire “The Suicide” — opens in March, then “Big White Fog.”

Attenborough also revealed that McGuinness will return in fall 2007 with his translation of Ibsen’s undervalued “Rosmersholm,” starring Helen McCrory, currently winning big laughs onscreen with her lethally funny Cherie Blair in Stephen Frears‘ “The Queen.”

* * *

The National Theater is also busy with nonwhite casting and with new writing. Nicholas Hytner‘s revival of George Etheredge’s Restoration comedy “The Man of Mode” (previewing from Jan. 29) is not yet fully cast, but already boasts a strong contingent of Asian actors, a bold choice for a play originally set among the fashionistas of 17th-century London.

That will be followed by the return of South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, recreating the roles they wrote and created with Athol Fugard in the classic “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead.” The play preemed in 1972 , a year after the mysterious suicide of BBC correspondent James Mossman, an event — and a life — investigated by Nicholas Wright in “The Reporter,” to be directed by Richard Eyre. That play opens at the National in February.

An associate director of the National from 1984-88, Wright has premiered numerous works there, including “Mrs Klein” and his epic, two-part dramatization of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.”

This week also sees the opening of Marianne Elliot‘s keenly anticipated new production of Wright’s adaptation of Zola’s shocker “Therese Raquin.” David Hare (currently under commission) is often regarded as the National’s house dramatist. Clearly as strong a case could be made for Wright to hold the title.

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