Elise Virginia Ward responds to Attenborough production of BIG WHITE FOG — Elise Virginial Ward , Theodore Ward — AAPEX

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Elise Virginia Ward responds to Attenborough production of BIG WHITE FOG

Following is a response by Theodore Ward's daughter, Elise Virginia Ward, in an email to us regarding the Almeida Theatre's production of her father's play BIG WHITE FOG and The Guardian article posted here on October 15th:

As you will see from the attached letter, I was very troubled by the article Attenborough wrote. I am sending it to you because your site is dedicated to black theatre/writers and I think this kind of thing should not be allowed to happen to any of us/them.

I have not seen my response posted anywhere.

My concern is that yet another production of BWF will be mounted absent my agreement. I am already receiving calls from Europe and elsewhere in the US.

I would welcome your thoughts.

Elise Virginia Ward

PS: I was very pleased to see your site.

Theodore Ward, Big White Fog and the Almeida Theatre - a Study in Contradictions
Elise Virginia Ward

The Almeida Theatre's production of Theodore Ward's play Big White Fog epitomizes as nothing else could the arrogance and duplicity my father faced during his lifetime and the kind of behavior to which I have been continually exposed in my work as his biographer and designated representative for the past 30 years. Michael Attenborough's May 10 article in The Guardian entitled My Search for the Lost Voice of Black America is replete with inaccuracies and deliberate omissions that serve to misinform and hoodwink London theatergoers as to the true nature of this production. I want to clarify them here.

Far from being 'lost,' Big White Fog is quite well-known here in America. Actors and directors of African descent have always had a special reverence for this play, which is taught in theatre departments across the country. The obstacle for American producers has always been their inability to benefit from Big White Fog with impunity. Apparently, Mr. Attenborough believes that 3,000 miles are enough to eliminate this problem.

About a month before hearing from Almeida, in May, 2006, I received email from Nicholas Kent of the Tricycle Theatre, saying that he wanted to produce Big White Fog. I thanked him for his interest and wrote him a letter outlining my concerns, and expressing my willingness to explore the possibility with him. Unfortunately, I did not hear from Mr. Kent again until much later, after I had preliminarily agreed to the Almeida production.

Attenborough first emailed me in June, 2006, in an ostensible search for the performing rights, telling me that my sister, Laura Branca, had suggested he do so and saying that Jenny Worten, his assistant (formerly with the Tricycle) had 'discovered' the play. He also said he'd learned from the Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture that the play was in the public domain, but that he wanted my 'blessing' in order to go forward. I responded by saying three things: The copyright is in question; the Schomburg is not authorized to grant production rights, and I was uncomfortable about an overseas production I could not oversee.

A long correspondence of telephone calls, emails and letters ensued between Mr. Attenborough, Neil Constable and me, through which I outlined the conditions under which Almeida might be granted permission to produce the play. No financial consideration was demanded save a token payment of $50 and a production credit for my company, 9th Decade, Inc, which my advisors asked me to require while the copyright issues are being resolved so that I could retain a formal role in the production. An agreement letter was to be prepared.

Almeida also asked me to act as editor for their playbill (the theatre's glossy magazine) and invited me to come to London at their expense to see the play. I was assured of their intention to honor the work and I welcomed a European production because I wanted audiences to become familiar with my father's work. In addition, I was initially told that Almeida would engage a black director. When the possibility of having the play script published was suggested, I told Almeida that I was planning to publish a 'collected works' here in the United States, and that we would need to talk more about that. I now see that the Nick Hern Books is poised to publish the play! (amazon.co.uk)

My understanding from Almeida was that they had not produced a play of this kind before and my concern was primarily for the actors – I wanted them to fully understand the play. I allowed Mr. Attenborough to read copyrighted materials of mine that contained information that is posted on the Theodore Ward webpage, as well as heretofore unpublished information that was not to be disseminated (but which I now see he has included in his article and, apparent to me from their content, in interviews with others).

I told Almeida that I would want some input in the casting and received Attenborough's request for suggestions. To my astonishment, he told me that he would need to hire African-American actors to play the older characters, because 'there [were] no black actors in that age category in England!' For the part of the most complex female character, Martha Brooks, I suggested Ruby Dee who, with her late husband Ossie Davis, were longtime friends of the author.

Perhaps most regrettable is the fact that, while I am sure that all the actors in the Almeida production (including Novella Nelson, whom I met many years ago through my friends Gus and John when she was singing in New York and again, last year, when I was a guest of her friend Mrs. Neal at their synagogue in Brooklyn) are providing audiences with stimulating performances, members of my family, many of whom are now in their 80s, are dismayed over what has occurred.

Later, at Attenborough's request, I began to act as dramaturg, elucidating for him a number of terms and concepts contained in the script and about Black life in America with which he was unfamiliar.

I also offered to come to London at my own expense early during rehearsals in order to talk to the cast, a group whose collective understanding of American race relations in the 1930s and their impact on my father would, in my opinion, benefit from an explanation of the historical context that informs this work. Both Attenborough and Constable expressed their gratitude for my involvement and willingness to help them do this right.

Mr. Attenborough told me they both wanted to visit me in New York so that we could spend time with the script and discuss other aspects of the upcoming production. I was asked to set aside a day for this purpose and I did so. When Attenborough arrived in New York last October, sans Mr. Constable, we spent several hours together discussing the play; I loaned him still more archival materials I thought would help him understand the work.

It was not until that evening, when he met me for dinner at an upscale Harlem restaurant (and very nervous about being on 125th Street) that he told me he had commissioned a derivative play and intended to perform it. Nick Curtis's May 15 piece in the Evening Standard quotes Attenborough: 'Our resident writer, Roy Williams, was greatly inspired by Ward's play and we commissioned him to write one himself, which compares and relates the social and political conditions for black people in England today with their ancestors in Chicago 70 years ago. This resulted in a 70-minute play Out of the Fog, performed over two weeks during the day to invited audiences of over 1,000 mesmerised and delighted local teenagers, most of whom happened to be black. . . . Last month, [audiences] have been to see daytime performances of [the play], in which a contemporary black family is visited by a ghostly character from Ward's play.'

The next day, I withdrew my consent from Almeida by sending them a 'Cease and Desist' letter. It read, in part, 'What is most disturbing to me . . . is the cavalier manner in which you mentioned (in a deliberately understated tone) your having 'commissioned' a new work to be written, produced, performed, and, I would assume, copyrighted; a work for which you can claim absolutely no right to create or to contemplate creating. Yet you baldly explained that this work is a 'sequel' to Big White Fog, using the characters of the four Mason children created by Theodore Ward: Caroline, Phillip, Lester and Wanda.' I was stunned to learn that Almeida has gone forward anyhow.

Black creative artists in the United States have struggled for decades to retain the right to benefit from their own work and to determine its use. Instead, Mr. Attenborough has cleverly exploited the long-term estrangement of two sisters in order to hold himself out as the anointed producer and offer to the public work over which he has no real authority.

Mr. Attenborough's clever omission of our extensive interaction was bad enough. His craven reference to my mother's having given her blessing is especially pathetic: 'I'm thankful that she was delighted at the prospect of our imminent production.' Mrs. Ward, who was divorced from my father 1966, spent the past several years in an assisted living facility, suffering from a dementia that severely impaired her ability to effectively communicate, let alone express her support for an enterprise she could not possibly have understood was being contemplated.

Since before his death in 1983, I have worked to preserve and protect the canon and elucidate for academics and audiences alike the elements that informed Theodore Ward's work and lifelong goal: to produce realistic theatre for and about African Americans for consumption by new generations of theatergoers. Last year, I was invited by Harvard University/Oxford University Press to write the Theodore Ward entry for the upcoming African American National Biography, edited by Professor Henry Louis Gates. As a graduate of Columbia University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, my understanding of the press and of the history of the Black Theatre in the United States is both professional and comprehensive.

"I feel 'Big White Fog' is a milestone," says Attenborough. "It would be wonderful if it succeeds. Because if it does, it will provide me with the ammunition I need to go on being bold."

The italics are mine.

Elise Virginia Ward


1 comment:

  1. AAPEX is equally troubled. If people will rip off one of the foundations of African-American theatre, what hope is there for the struggling black American playwright today? If our publishing your response can help you in this matter, it will be one of AAPEX's most important accomplishments. Hopefully our readers will take note and become activists in seeking protection in the production of their works and rally round your efforts to protect your father's work. It appears your father's struggle is still continuing, now passed down to his children. It shouldn't have to be that way.