U.K. auds may be forgiven for thinking black American playwriting began with Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” Yet in 1937, a generation earlier, Hansberry’s fellow Chicagoan Theodore Ward married the American family play with black identity politics in the barely seen “Big White Fog.” Key performances in Michael Attenborough’s new Almeida production — the play’s European premiere — constitute a forceful case for its re-emergence. They also help bridge the gap to this missing theatrical link.
Set on the South Side of Chicago in 1922, Ward’s play introduces an extended African-American family and then charts its splintering during a decade of battles over separatism versus assimilation.
Head of the Mason family, Victor (Danny Sapani) is an educated man stuck in the building trades. His son Lester (a nicely measured Tunji Kasim) reps the family’s hope for the future, the promise of a college scholarship representing his potential escape from the trap.
The positive atmosphere of the opening scene is quickly soured, however, by the racism of the surrounding society. A series of disappointments pile up as the Masons struggle with conflicts between principle and pragmatism.
Victor is a defiant separatist, a follower of Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa campaign, which predated the ’60s black power movement by 40 years. But, Victor’s brother Daniel (played with winning charm and focused energy by Tony Armatrading) sees no sense in it. A ghetto landlord, Daniel has bought into the American Dream. To Victor’s disgust, his brother is dedicated to making money even at the expense of the black community members who live in his properties.
The men’s wives are caught in the middle. Ella (Jenny Jules) is Victor’s long-suffering spouse and mother to his three children who, over the course of the play, comes to exemplify the polarized positions of the adults. Ella’s intransigent mother (emphatic Novella Nelson), meanwhile, is immured in the past, intolerant of her son-in-law who she deems to be too black.
Some of the cast of 18 play double roles, and not all of them find ways to undercut the earnestness of either the playwright or the production’s intent. The first act suffers from a surfeit of exposition, its slightly dogged tone mirrored in Jonathan Fensom’s solid living-room and hallway set, overly dominated by a giant, rococo-styled sofa.
In the Depression-set second half, however, with fortunes reversed and poverty shrinking everyone’s potential, the drama becomes less predictable and considerably more absorbing.
Performances come resolutely into focus. Some of the finest work comes from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as Victor and Ella’s daughter Wanda, driven to selling herself to save the family. The actress underplays the emotional turmoil to moving effect and adds an attractive lightness of touch that some of her fellow cast lacks. She’s matched by Jules as her increasingly desperate mother, bringing a physicality that makes her wiry frame seem to contract as her understandable resentment and anger increase.
Tensions climb as crucial but overstated ideologies happily give way to convincing action. The conviction of all concerned ensures that by the end, didacticism has turned to drama.