Great White Fog at the Almeida is a wonderful discovery. The play, about the troubles of a black American family in the depression era, was written by Theodore Ward in 1937 and produced soon after in Chicago, and subsequently in New York in 1947. But I’d never heard of him, or any of his 30 or more plays. As a black voice of the 20th century in the theatre, he is rare indeed, only August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry come to mind for writing plays about black people of the time, at least ones that we still see performed today.
The play, set in Chicago from 1922 to 1932, is one of family division. One brother in law believes in a homeland for black people in Africa (as espoused by Marcus Garvey), and that the white man will never let the black man get on in life. His brother in law distains what he calls ‘the monkey chasers’ and thinks his future lies in capitalistic integration, even if this means exploiting his fellow blacks. The depression, which struck at black and white, soon puts paid to either of their ideals, and their situation spirals towards utter desperation.
The play, directed by Almeida artistic director Michael Attenborough, might be a traditional familial drama, but the context is not. Black nationalism, capitalism and the (multi ethnic) socialist movement are all explored. Despite (or because) of this, the play does feel dated, and got several inappropriate laughs at the performance I attended, the drama seeming a bit too close to melodrama for some people (I didn’t agree). I do concede that the ending is melodramatic, but it moved me to shed a tear none the less. If a play can ultimately make me invest that much emotional capital in the characters lives, I must deem it dramatically successful.
The acting however makes the evening, in the hands of lesser players the material would have seemed even more old fashioned. But the acting here is so absolutely first rate, and the cast so emotionally true, it is hard to disbelieve their stories. The company, especially for the relatively small Almeida, is huge, with several small parts (a reflection of the usual theatre cast sizes of the time), and I can’t fault anyone. I can praise though; Danny Spani as Victor Mason the Garvyite father was electric when arguing with his Mother in law, supremely played by Novella Nelson. Rarely have I seen a verbal argument of such seemingly genuine hurt onstage. The stage itself is beautifully and immaculately made up as a house of the period by designer Jonathan Fensom. The play is an excellent social document, and this particular production is a riveting night out.