The Common Good
January-February 1996

Lights in the Fog

by Bob Hulteen | January-February 1996

Theodore Ward's Hope for a Better Racial Future

The year is 1995. Much of America, especially white America, is debating about Powell's aborted presidential candidacy and whether the march's message and messenger are interminably linked. Many other people are honestly seeking hope in the midst of despair as they pursue new approaches to cross the great color divide.

Within this context I viewed the Minneapolis-based Guthrie Theater production of Theodore Ward's Big White Fog. The play was directed by Lou Bellamy, artistic director of St. Paul's African-American theater company, Penumbra. (I attended when a friend called to say she had tickets and the flu. I got the tickets; she kept the flu.)

The year is 1938. The Works Administration Project, a government-sponsored, anti-Depression program to ensure the development of the arts in lean times, invited Theodore Ward, a struggling young playwright, to draft a play. Ward believed that a play showing the "Negro condition" would be his best offering.

For more than 50 years, Ward's Big White Fog was not performed anywhere in this country. The play was both challenging and controversial. Its socialist tendencies, its large cast (as it was designed to put performers back to work during the Depression), and its portrayal of internecine black community issues (including skin tones, even before Spike Lee's School Daze) have made it a challenge for any theater to produce. But 1995 was a year to bring forward controversial debates within the African-American community.

The year is 1922. The Mason family is filled with strong personalities. Victor (Jonathan Earl Peck), the patriarch, is a disciple of Marcus Garvey, the charismatic Jamaican who formed the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914. Like Garvey, Victor believes that the best future for American blacks is to make the migration back to Africa, forming a new country of displaced Africans.

Victor's brother-in-law, Dan (Terry Bellamy), represents the segment of the black community that views capitalism as the way for advancement. Dan has decided that his best course of action is to invest his limited funds in a boarding house, from which he can glean rents. Victor, of course, resents the fact that Dan makes his money off the dire circumstances of other black folk.

Percy (Abdul Salaam El Razzac), Victor's brother, represents more the Black Renaissance of the Gay '20s and earlier. He lives life hard, loves his music, and unfortunately also his drink.

Victor's son, Lester (Lester Purry), has watched with admiration the commitments of his father. He does not necessarily think a move back to Africa is wise, but his father's integrity is never in doubt. And this matters to Lester. Eventually, having been denied college because of his color, Lester chooses for himself the socialist option.

THE "BIG WHITE FOG" refers originally to the racism each family member faces. As the play develops, the name takes on even deeper meaning: The fog becomes the dysfunctionality bred by the persistence of racism in the lives of all the characters, and in society as well. Their dialogue represents that of the black community in the 1920s and '30s.

Ella (Rebecca Rice) mediates all the ideas. While the men clash over ideology, Ella makes life possible, not merely by maintaining the home, but also by shrewdly challenging each of them into a space previously unconsidered.

The year is 1932. Every member of the family now faces a desperate situation. Victor, Ella, and their family await imminent eviction; daughter Wanda (Bridgid Coulter) has slept with a white man to get money for a new place to rent; Lester and his communist comrades have gotten in trouble for anti-government demonstrations; Percy is a drunk; even Dan and his wife, Juanita (Marvette Knight), are nearly penniless.

Still the discussions continue, with playwright Ward's personal perspective seeping out:

Victor, dying from a gunshot wound by the police who were evicting him, says breathlessly, "This world ain't...nothing but...a big white fog, and nobody can't see...no light nowhere!"

His son Lester, standing with his many comrades who arrived too late to stop the eviction, finally sees a light through the fog. He says, "You remember [my comrades], don't you?...I wanted you to see they're black and white." Lester saw in his father's death a future built on solidarity and control. That future stared into Victor's eyes as they lost their light.

The Guthrie production was inspired. The performers moved beyond the two-dimensional nature of the characters to create a very dramatic mood. Rebecca Rice, who played Ella, told me after the show that the play's message was intensified for this nearly all-African-American cast by the million men who had just marched in Washington, D.C. For all the actors, the dialogue continues into their daily lives.

Last performed in 1940 in Harlem, this play still carries tremendous weight. No other play, not even August Wilson's The Piano Lesson , offers a more realistic portrait of this period of black history. We have, of course, a more refined lens through which to view it: In the ensuing period, socialism has also fallen into disrepute. And so we still search for the new message that will call us to a new place, where we can struggle together.

Noted writer Langston Hughes said of Big White Fog: "It is the greatest, most encompassing play on Negro life that has ever been written. If it isn't liked by people, it is because they are not ready for it, not because it isn't a great play."

May we finally be ready. And may we, unlike the socialists in the play, not arrive too late.

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