Theodore Ward: African American Theatre's most important playwright? — Big White Fog , Theodore Ward , Theodore Ward Prize — AAPEX

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Theodore Ward: African American Theatre's most important playwright?

The Guardian (May 10, 2007)

My search for the lost voice of black America
Could this man be African-American theatre's most important playwright?

The Almeida's artistic director Michael Attenborough turned detective to discover the fascinating life of Theodore Ward.

I felt like a sleuth. All we had to go on was one sole publication of an extraordinary but almost entirely unknown play found in a huge volume entitled Black Theatre USA. How are we to obtain the rights to produce it, who holds them, is the author still alive? A considerable amount of detective work later (thank God for the Internet) and I am nervously ringing a US number in a place called Ithaca. A very quiet voice answers, conjuring up an image of a rather frail, ageing lady - completely belied by the youthful woman I eventually travelled 3,000 miles to meet: Laura Ward Branca, the younger daughter of the playwright in question, Theodore (Ted) Ward.

Big White Fog was written in 1937, a full 22 years before Lorraine Hansberry's landmark drama A Raisin in the Sun, and must be one of very first African-American plays ever written in the realistic genre. It follows the lives of three generations of the Mason family in Chicago across 10 years (1922-32), one half committed to the separatist, Garveyite Back to Africa movement, and the other devoted to a belief in the ultimate rewards of the American dream. The fluency and accuracy of Ward's dialogue is matched by the richness and specificity of his characterisations, resulting in an unsentimentally honest picture of a racially oppressed community, fearlessly portrayed in all its complex and contradictory humanity, including painful and sometimes shocking moments of internal racism.

The more Laura told me of the play's background over lengthy transatlantic phone calls, the more fascinated I became. Ward was born at the turn of the century in the deep south, in Louisiana, the sixth of 11 children. His father, who had been born into slavery, was a devout schoolmaster who sold patent medicines and books from the back of a wagon to supplement his income. At the age of seven, Ward attempted a short play and showed it to his father, who threw it on the fire and declared it the work of the devil. When Ward was 12, his mother died in childbirth; the family fell apart and he ran away from home. He rode the freight trains north, travelling and working variously as a bell hop, shoe-shine boy and barber-shop porter. He ended up in Salt Lake City, where he was thrown in jail, but more importantly where he began to write again - mostly short stories and poems.

A determinedly and voraciously self-educated man, in his late 20s he was eventually awarded a place at Wisconsin University, before moving to Chicago in 1934, where he wrote a one-act play, called Sick 'n Tiahd, that won second prize in a magazine contest. He was encouraged by the winner, Richard Wright, to write a full-length play. That play was Big White Fog, produced in 1938 by the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project, and revived in Harlem in 1940 as the inaugural production of the Negro Playwrights' Company, formed by Paul Robeson, Ward, Wright and Langston Hughes (among others).

With a real sense of adventure I eventually set off to meet Laura, and her sister Elise. My blind date was no disappointment; Laura was soft spoken and immensely articulate, having clearly inherited her father's love of words, selecting and savouring them like precious fruit. As well as a delightful sense of humour, she possessed an unforced addiction to the truth, what I believe we call integrity. She was, and continues to be, an invaluable source of information and support.

Despite having written over 30 plays, including one produced on Broadway (Our Lan' in 1947) it was a surprised to discover how little-known Ward's work is in America. During my visit to New York, I was invited to take a Shakespeare workshop at the Julliard School of Acting, and briefly concluded by telling them about this play and its remarkable author. No one - staff nor all 75 students present - had heard of either Ward or the play. His social realist style, largely serious tone and left-leaning politics rendered him uncommercial and, particularly when black-listed during the McCarthy era, untouchable. As a result, he struggled to earn a living as a writer, constantly having to supplement his income with other work, and frequently writing at exhausting hours of the night. It was nearly 60 years before Big White Fog received another major production - at the Guthrie in Minneapolis. Ours will be its first outside the US.

This naturally gives our theatre, the Almeida, a wonderful opportunity to attract a varied and diverse audience. 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.

So here we have a largely self-educated young "hobo", who wound up in jail and emerged to write his first full-length play set in his own community on the south side of Chicago an area, torn apart by battles over separatism versus integration and ravaged by racism and poverty. It's this play that has the power to inspire a leading contemporary British playwright, and to attract a crack company of actors to perform its European premiere, 70 years later.

Ward died of cancer in 1983, his wife Mary (an American-Armenian social activist) only months ago, aged 95. I'm thankful that she was delighted at the prospect of our imminent production.

When, not long before he died, Big White Fog received a public reading in New York, Ward wrote: "As a young man travelling across the United States, hoboing on a westbound freight train through the Rocky Mountains, I found myself at the Great Horseshoe Bend. Seated in the open doorway of the boxcar in which I was riding, I was enthralled by the overpowering beauty and the strength of the towering hills, and the vast declivity to the valley beneath with its shrubbery of gold and red and brown bathed in the light of the sinking sun - the sides of the mountains themselves with their tall trees tinged with the amber of its dying rays and creating a sight of fabulous enchantment.

"It seemed to me that such a scene had been the source of inspiration to the poet who had conceived of Americas 'the beautiful'. My heart thrilled and I found myself singing of its 'purple mountain majesty above the fruited plain' as I had done as a child in school.

"But suddenly I found my spirit sickened as I realised the truth: 'I'm a Negro and all this beauty and majesty does not belong to me.' With a fallen heart, I acknowledged that I had nothing to boast of. I was a descendant of the slaves who had built this country, yet I was still deprived of the patriotic joy felt by those who claimed the land as their own.

"In my bewilderment that late afternoon, it suddenly occurred to me that we as a people were engulfed by a pack of lies, surrounded, in fact, by one big white fog through which we could see no light anywhere. Disheartened, as the sun sank behind the mountains west of the pass, I crawled back into a darkened corner of the boxcar and there I lay down, convinced that my life would be that of a 'floater', sans hope, sans purpose.

"When Big White Fog was produced in the years before world war two, years of deep depression and disillusionment for black people, many were convinced that there was no hope for black liberation. Although much has changed, the Masons' struggle to discover viable options through which to ameliorate their condition is, I believe, as meaningful today as it was more than 40 years ago."

It was an extraordinary experience on the first day of rehearsals to read this out, along with a most touching message from Laura, to the assembled company of 18 actors.

Here we go.

Big White Fog
Directed by Michael Attenborough
Almeida Theatre
from May 11th through June 30th
Box office: 020-7359 4404

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