It is 1920s Chicago, in the sepia-toned family home where Ella Mason and her husband Victor live with their four children, Ella’s matriarchal mother and Vic’s playboy brother. The tentative hope that exists among this African-American family is gradually eroded away through the years as they collectively struggle with prejudice, principle and the American Dream, all too elusive through the Big White Fog. Caroline Bishop attended the first night of Theodore Ward’s play at the Almeida…
Victor (Danny Sapani) is a man of principle, a stout supporter of Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement, disillusioned by what blatantly prejudiced America can offer him and his family, hoping to offer them all an escape by ploughing money into Garvey’s Black Star Line. His brother-in-law, by contrast, has decided if you can’t beat them, join them, and is pursuing the American Dream, intent on making money to get ahead in life, while – in business at least – turning a blind eye to racial inequality. Each man, in effect, wants the same thing – a good life for his family unblighted by prejudice – but each is contemptuous of the other’s method of getting there.
Ward’s play is a carefully crafted tragedy which sees Victor’s obsession with Garvey throw the family into decline as he clings to principle above all else – in the end, at the expense of his family. Sapani is a powerful, proud Victor, while Jenny Jules is his deceptively strong wife Ella, determined to keep her family from harm but unable to protect them from prejudice – their elder son Lester is refused a scholarship to university on racial grounds – nor, in the end, from the damaging actions of Victor. Jules moves expertly from devoted wife and don’t-mess-with-me mother to a sparrow-like figure of distress, clutching her cardigan round her for protection as her life falls down around her. The stories of the elder Mason children Lester (Tunji Kasim) and Wanda (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are achingly poignant as their attempts to better themselves fall by the wayside as they try, however misguidedly, to help their mother keep the family’s head above water.
This is a powerful and moving story but Ward’s dialogue is also filled with laughter, vivacity and passion which makes his characters beautifully real – if only the phrase “hot pyjamas”, uttered by younger son Phillip, was still in use! Jonathan Fensom’s design captures the details of the period, setting it firmly in the era of typewriters and early gramophones.
It is a large cast and almost all are present on the Almeida stage for the final scene, in which Victor’s blind determination, coupled with long-held resentments within the family and their own prejudices, lead the Masons to a tragic end.