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Theodore Ward’s 1938 play about a black family in Chicago is full of historical points that have little or no resonance in Britain. We scarcely know of the Great Migration of 1915-20, when southern rural black folk made their way to northern cities, and Marcus Garvey, the fraudulent leader of a back-to-Africa movement, is recognised in today’s Britain only as a buzz-name in roots reggae lyrics. And yet these ingredients, far from seeming distant or even academic, enrich the drama.
The play follows the Mason family in a steady decline from 1922 to 1932. The action lies in the interplay of ideas about the way forward for black Americans. The separatism of father Victor’s Garveyite views conflicts with the integrationism of his socialist son Lester and the economic strategy of his brother-in-law, who becomes a rack-renting landlord.
As the Depression begins to bite, daughter Wanda faces a humiliating issue of principle versus pragmatism, having to decide whether to succumb to a white sugar-daddy in order to pay the rent. There is even black-on-black racism, as Victor excoriates his mixed-race mother-in-law and she in turn uses the N-word on him.
Ward’s achievement, like August Wilson at his best, is to keep these ideas firmly connected to people, rather than just being rhetorical positions loaded on to fleshly vehicles. More impressive still, amid all this strife and privation, there is not a single family member who is not at bottom a good person. They differ only in their choice of path. The family is led by Danny Sapani’s Victor, an imposing and articulate man whose clear perspective deserts him when it comes to the failings of Garveyism, and Jenny Jules as his wife Ella, who can smile and utter conciliating words even as her eyes betray the desperation with which she tries to stop the household shattering.
Michael Attenborough’s production is a clear indicator of his desire to make his theatre as diverse as the borough in which it is set and a long overdue extra-US première for a strong, impassioned piece of writing. Tel +44 (0) 20 7359 4404
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