- Staging the Garveyite Home: Black Masculinity, Failure, and Redemption in Theodore Ward's Big White Fog
When Theodore Ward's Big White Fog was produced by the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in April 1938, it was hailed by fellow artists as an important and original play. Langston Hughes thought it "the greatest 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" (qtd. in Hatch 279-80). Ralph Ellison found Big White Fog to be "like no other Negro play . . . in its three-act attempt to probe the most vital problems of Negro experience" (qtd. in Hatch 279). It was precisely Ward's attempt to explore those problems that proved so controversial, provoking black community leaders in Chicago to condemn the play as "dangerously realistic" and likely to "tear down unity between the races as well as within the race" (qtd. in Graham, Memorandum n. pag.).
Big White Fog explores black masculinity in relation to three political movements and ideologies with competing visions for black progress in the years between 1922 and 1932. Garveyism, capitalism and communism are each represented by a male figure who embodies the promise of redeemed black manhood. Each ideology, in turn, offers to restore the pride, dignity and status of black men, who have been excluded from and defined in opposition to hegemonic notions of manliness. Previous studies have tended to examine the political positions explored in the play and concluded that Ward shows a preference for communism. The appearance on stage of large numbers of communists at the play's end has seemed to support this reading of the play. 1 I argue, however, that the play does not reach a dramatic resolution in favor of any one movement, but rather offers a critique of their different paths to manhood. The purpose of this article, then, is to investigate how the play uses staged representations of Garveyism, capitalism and communism to explore competing ideals of manliness. By manliness, I mean a specific, historically contingent version of masculinity, which aims to achieve the political and social cachet of manhood. The term manhood identifies a form of maleness that functions as a claim to political and social (including domestic) legitimacy and power. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manliness was a middle-class discourse that was characterized by self-restraint and control of masculine passions and which gave certain men authority over those weaker than they, such as women, African Americans, and working-class men (Bederman 11-12). 2 For example, in capitalist, Jim Crow America, economic discrimination against black men meant that they were seldom able to act as exclusive breadwinners within their families; this was an inferior and dependent status that precluded certain kinds of authority associated with manhood. It is the black man's quest to redeem his manhood that is central to Ward's examination of black culture and politics in interwar America.
Ward's study of competing paths to black manhood attracted considerable attention during its initial run, and yet the gender politics of Big White Fog has received surprisingly little analysis both in accounts of black cultural politics in the interwar period and in black theater history. 3 This article is an attempt to redress this oversight and to suggest that Ward's unresolved and uncomfortable portrayal of the predicaments [End Page 557] and paradoxes of black masculinity in interwar America marks a significant moment in black theater history. Ward should both be acknowledged as an early exponent and understood within the context of an important black theatrical tradition that used the black family drama to interrogate contemporary black political discourse. Ward's concern with the black man's dream of a better life and failure to achieve manhood in his domestic and work life are themes which inform Richard Wright's collaboration with Paul Green on the stage version of Native Son (1940) as well as they also inform Lorraine Hansberry's drama Raisin in the Sun (1959). More recently, many of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle...