Although never a real force in American theater, Theodore Ward deserves more critical attention than he currently receives. His two most important plays, Big White Fog (1938) and Our Lan' (written in 1941) never enjoyed major commercial successes, although they did receive popular and critical notice and managed to generate some controversy. Tackling a myriad of contentious subjects such as Garveyism, anti-Semitism, color prejudice among blacks, the devastating effects of racism, the appeal of Communism, and the failures of the United States Government to live up to its responsibilities to African Americans, Ward never eschews controversy, hoping always to educate and politicize his audience.
Born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, on 15 September 1902, Ward left Louisiana at the age of thirteen, shortly after his mother's death. Earning his living as a bootblack, porter, or bellhop, Ward wandered about the United States during his teens. He began formal literary study at the University of Utah in the late 1920s. In 1931 a scholarship allowed Ward to study creative writing at the University of Wisconsin where he remained until 1935. Moving to Chicago, Ward's ideological life took shape when he joined a John Reed Club and began working for the WPA. His one-act play Sick and Tiahd won second prize in a contest sponsored by the labor movement. This success prompted the playwright to join the Federal Theater Project. In 1938 Big White Fog was produced by the Theater Project in Chicago. In 1940 the playwright formed the Negro Playwrights Company to produce Fog in New York. Over the next thirty-five years other plays followed: Deliver the Goods (1942); Our Lan' (first produced in 1946); John Brown (1950); Candle in the Wind (1967); and The Daubers (1973). In 1976 Ward received a Rockefeller Foundation grant to produce Our Lan' with the Free Southern Theater in New Orleans. He assisted the company again when it produced his Candle in the Wind as its final production in 1978. Ward died in Chicago in May 1983.
Fog remains Ward's most significant work. Set in Chicago between 1922 and 1932, the play chronicles the struggles of the Mason family and its patriarch, Victor. Confronting a series of financial and racial crises, Victor tries to keep the family together and instill in its members race pride and a commitment to the struggle for social and economic justice. Before recognizing multiracial Communism as the solution to the economic and racial injustices of America, Victor places his faith and the family's savings in Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line. With the depression the family's misery increases; finally Victor dies a victim of a gunshot wound inflicted by a sheriff evicting the family from their home. Before dying Victor looks upon his son's comrades who have arrived to aid the family in resisting the eviction. The son tells his father, “I just wanted to show you, they're [the comrades] black and white.
The optimistic conclusion of Fog may seem naive in the post-Marxist world, but in 1938 some feared the play's conclusion would prompt riots. Riots never occurred, but then neither did large audiences. Ward, however, never gave up in his attempt to reach large, especially black, audiences, a fact attested to by his commitment to the Free Southern Theater at the end of his career.