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Theodore Ward: Defining Black Nationalism
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Theodore Ward: Defining Black Nationalism

Picture of Lindsay Parnell
Updated: 9 January 2017
Lindsay Parnell looks at the work of Theodore Ward, a playwright who spent his career negotiating the complex terrain of African-American identity, whilst engaging with concepts such as the Black Nationalism and the return of the African diaspora.

An often overlooked presence in American theater history, Theodore Ward has nevertheless produced a literary career of the highest calibre. As a forefather of American drama who embedded the search for identity into his works, he is truly a writer whose cultural and political perceptions have shaped a literary consciousness and social awareness. He fearlessly explored racism, and religious and ethnic bigotry in the United States, and his significance in American Arts and Letters cannot be overlooked. Literary friendships with key members of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, inspired Theodore Ward as he crafted some of the most critically articulate stage scripts of modern American drama. After a childhood and adolescence in the sweaty Southern American pocket of Louisiana, Ward made his way to Chicago then New York, and back again to Chicago, while producing challenging work centered on fundamental domestic relationships.

Ward’s landmark play, Big White Fog, chronicles three generations of the Mason family from 1922 to 1933. The profound and unresolved tension of a domestic schism runs through the whole family and dominates their discourse. The Masons are split, fighting mercilessly over their future. Half of the Masons are seduced by the idea of the supposed wealth and happiness of the ‘American dream’. They see opportunity and unlimited wealth in a false sense of economic freedom. But the other Masons have hopes of returning to Africa to rediscover and embody a truer sense of cultural identity and belonging. Although citizens of the United States, they are still victims of racial injustice and aggressive bigotry, their story illuminates the quest for their unknown national identity. And so intense brawling and disagreement fracture and furiously unravel the domestic unit.

Ward’s body of dramatic work revisits ideas of Black Nationalism and questions this sense of a shifting cultural identity for African-Americans in the depression era United States. His canon features a broad historical contextualisation, including dramatic narratives of the African-American experience during Southern Reconstruction, the depression and two world wars. Ward’s characters and their stories explore identity in the multifaceted realms of the personal, the political and the public. His narrative presentations courageously fought to define a marginalised cultural identity in the wake of aggressive national prejudice.

The work of Theodore Ward however was not limited to the stage; he made notable contributions to the written word in essays, opera and poetry. His progressive works not only rejected oppressive patriarchal regimes of the supposed ‘norm’, but also poignantly reflected on the principal notions of humanity, in communication and fundamental relationships. Ward’s literary presence is powerful, and will remain force of an eloquently arresting and dramatic career.