The Theatreguide.London Review
Here's a real discovery, an important American play seen for the first time in Britain, and not very well-known in America either.
Theodore Ward's 1938 drama is a searing and unsentimental look at African-American life in the 1920s and 1930s, a time when poverty, prejudice and powerlessness were givens, and it was almost impossible to see past them to any dim light of hope.
Ward looks closely at the Masons, a black family in 1920s Chicago, just trying to make it from day to day. Father Victor has cast his lot, and the family's savings, with the back-to-Africa movement of the charismatic Marcus Garvey, who would tragically prove to be a fraud. The rippling effects of the lost money and hope will affect everyone, dooming the children's hopes of college or advancement.
Ward's cold honesty doesn't even allow for the sentimental comforts of family unity, since the crisis exacerbates other wounds, bringing out real or imagined prejudices of class, of values or of degrees of blackness. (One minor weakness of the play is that it spreads itself a bit too thin, digressing into these side issues.)
The final scenes take place ten years later, in the depths of the Depression, with little changed beyond even greater poverty and the displacement of father's Garveyism by son's Communism as a chimera of utopian hope.
The play is slow-moving and occasionally clumsy in its construction. But it has a truth to tell, and it tells it with honesty and power. It is also clearly an important and influential piece of African-American literature - it is impossible to believe, for example, that August Wilson was unaware of it when writing The Piano Lesson and others of his plays.
Which makes it regrettable that this production isn't better than it is. The play's power comes through, but too much of the time it has to fight the direction and acting rather than being supported by them.
Director Michael Attenborough has not guided his cast to the most rudimentary of acting necessities - the establishment and maintenance of a sense of reality. Far too often actors don't listen or relate to each other, but just stand woodenly, waiting for their cue (and then waiting a second longer, just to be sure) and then reciting their lines before turning off again.
Danny Sapani as father Victor does come alive when his character is moved to make idealistic Garveyite speeches, when Ward's eloquence (The playwright respects the dream even while bemoaning its falseness) moves the actor to real passion.
And Novella Nelson creates an instant and warm reality in her scenes as matriarchal grandmother. But the rest of the acting ranges from missed opportunities to downright embarrassing.
So go to see the play, which is both historically important and powerful enough to survive a deeply flawed production. And see past the acting and direction to appreciate its virtues.
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