Review: The Big White Fog
Wednesday, May 30, 2007.
By Belinda Otas
Set in Chicago’s South side in the 1920s, The Big White Fog chronicles the story of the Mason family, headed by Victor Mason (Danny Sapani) as they strive to keep their vision of America dreams alive amid the great depression and the racial divide.
Family tensions soon ensue when Victor's commitment to Marcus Garvey’s, Back To Africa Movement begins to cripples their dream as a family. Though the movement proclaims its dedication to the freedom of the black man and envisions a day when all African Americans will be free and go back to Africa, where “the hope and destined fulfilment of the Negro’s dream.”
There are people like Daniel Rogers (Tony Armatrading) who consider it to be a flawed revolution and believes their heritage is right there in America. Victor's insistent on investing his family’s wealth in Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line turns out to be a decision that will cost them more than they would have liked.
Emotionally charged, as tensions run high when each character is forced to face up to the vicissitudes life hands to them. The audience gets a raw deal on the dynamics. Jenny Jules' Ella Mason has no voice in the decision making process of her family as Victor takes charge and wants everyone aboard his ship and his dream of Africa.
Lester Mason (Tunji Kasim) has high hopes of gaining a scholarship to go college but his dreams are dashed when he is refused based on the colour of his skin and is made to sacrifice his future for the family when they run into financial trouble during the depression.
The use of subtext within the play gives the characters greater depth. Victor Mason’s relationship with his mother-in-law was deeper than just domestic issues. It was a good portrayal of the strain on relationship within the Black community at the time - where one feels superior to the other due to skin tone, education and financial standing - and this is reflected in the relationship between Victor and Daniel.
Michael Attenborough's direction draws on the strong family theme that runs through the play. The audience sees three generations who have all wanted a change but for one reason or the other failed to attain their aspirations.
The play was written in 1937 by Theodore Ward, who died in 1983 and this landmark family drama reveals how these battling factions fare during this raw and vivid period in American history.
Novella Nelson's Martha Brooks is the matriarch of the family and Wanda Mason (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is the granddaughter who wants more from life and believes getting an education is a waste because it will get her nowhere in America as long as you are black.
“There’s nothing in this country for a Negro girl to look forward to, and you know it as well as I.”
The play is set in the living room of the Masons, giving a homely and cosy feel to the production and the audience is made to feel like they are right in the middle of the action as each scene unfolds. The depiction of the grandmother sewing and Ella shelling real peas was an interesting way of bringing the real world onto the stage. Giving a platform to explore the interaction between the women and men during that time in history and the situations they faced up to.
While the play is a delight to watch as it gives you a glimpse of past life, it also makes you question if Ward’s observation of life in the 1920s has left America today. Is life still a ‘Big White Fog?’
The Big White Fog is now showing at London's Almedia Theatre until June 20, 2007.
Born in Louisiana in 1902, Theodore Ward was a pioneer among African-American playwrights. At age 12, he walked the rails north working his way across America as a bellhop and bootblack before writing over 30 plays including his most famous Our Lan’ which enjoyed a successful and award-winning run on Broadway.
In 1937, his first major work Big White Fog, opened amid controversy in Chicago. In 1938 Ward co-founded The Negro Playwrights’ Company in New York alongside Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and other prominent black dramatists, their first production at The Lincoln Theatre was Big White Fog.
For more information: www.almedia.co.uk
Tel: 020 7 359 4404
Belinda Otas is a London-based freelance journalist and the New Black Magazine's theatre critic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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