By: Theodore Ward
Directed by: Michael Attenborough
Venu: Almeida Theatre
Date: Saturday 16th June 2007
This is a play, written in the 1930s, dealing with the various ways that black folk in US northern cities (Chicago, in this case) handled the discrimination they experienced every day. The family is a mixture. The wife, Ella, is the daughter of a woman (Martha) who’s part-white, born out of wedlock, and inordinately proud of being a Dupree. Ella has married Victor, a fully black man who’s heavily involved in the movement set up by Marcus Garvey, encouraging black people in America to return to Africa to set up a modern state there. Ella’s sister, Juanita, has married Daniel, who’s a wheeler-dealer type, trying to work the system to his advantage, and doing OK at this time, though the Depression gets even him in the end. Daughter Wanda chooses to drop out of school to work in a shop, as she doesn’t see education helping her much, while Les, the son, has received an ambiguous letter suggesting he’ll be accepted for a scholarship to study chemistry at college.
We see how things develop over several years, eventually ending up in the middle of the Depression. Les is turned down for a place at college because he’s black, and the scholarship committee is specifically forbidden from granting scholarships to black people. He turns to communism as an alternative, supported by a Jewish friend. Marcus Garvey does a runner with the money raised to found the Black Star Line, and is eventually put in jail, but Victor stays resolute to the end, becoming even more important in the organisation, and even less able to provide for his family as he’s put all their savings into Black Star Line shares. Wanda, influenced by her friend Claudine, ends up with a white sugar daddy, only she’s the one who has to be sweet to get any money out of him. And there’s also Uncle Percy, Victor’s brother, who spends all his time having fun, drinking and spending his money on clothes (and, presumably, women). He ends up a serious drunk. Meantime, Ella has done her best to keep her family together and cared for, but eventually even she has to speak up and complain.
One of the most interesting aspects of this production is that it’s the complete opposite of the colour-blind casting we’re so used to. It’s totally colour-sensitive. I noticed this first when Claudine comes in, as she’s light-skinned enough for me to be unsure that she’s playing a “black” character. Later, the racism amongst African-Americans comes to the fore, as Martha lets rip at Victor because he’s a black man! I know that no group is free of its own prejudices, but it’s rare to see this shown on stage. We get a touch of Queen Lear at this point, as Martha flounces off to her other daughter, only to return years later, saying she can’t stay with Juanita another night.
The other point of interest is how much the Depression affects everyone, black and white. Given that the Communists are racially integrated, it’s a sign of hope, but given that the whole country is suffering, it’s a setback for those trying to improve the lot of black people.
I did enjoy this play. It was amazing to see such a huge cast on the Almeida stage, and good to see an “authentic” piece – written by a black playwright at the time. I didn’t feel it was particularly shocking or even that powerful; it seemed quite gentle given the subject it’s covering, but that may be down to my detachment in time and experience from the events depicted. All the performances were excellent, though Novella Nelson (Martha) and Clint Dyer (Percy) were my favourites. The set reminded me of the Eric Sykes show, with the stairs, door and sitting room. Good fun.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me