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Theatre in Review: Wedding Band (Theatre for a New Audience)

Thomas Sadoski, Brittany Bradford. Photo: Hollis King

The Alice Childress revival continues apace with this revival of a 1966 work, first produced in 1972. Those dates will give you an idea what the persistently undervalued Childress had to put up with; only now, years after her death, is she being widely recognized as a great American playwright. Wedding Band ended her long silence as a writer, following the aborted Broadway transfer of her 1955 comedy Trouble in Mind. It nevertheless got a most subdued notice from the Times' Clive Barnes, who noted, "It is a romantic play and does not entirely escape the charge of sentimentality," before graciously allowing that "Miss Childress strikes the note of a genuine playwright." Clearly Barnes was asleep at the wheel that night. Subtitled a "a love/hate story in black and white," Wedding Band supplies plentiful doses of both emotions; it's a period drama that resonates powerfully today. As Childress knew, a society built on racism and lies is brittle and likely to break apart in often spectacular ways.

Wedding Band centers on an interracial relationship in South Carolina circa 1918. Loving v. Virginia is half a century in the future and the affair between Julia Augustine, who is Black, and Herman, of German descent, is a prosecutable offense. Nevertheless, they have been together for ten years, keeping separate living quarters and seeing each other on the sly. She works as a seamstress, frequently changing addresses to keep her private life quiet. He is a baker, weighed down by business woes and family responsibilities. Their long-term plan: Herman will pay off his debts to his mother and he and Julia will move to a Northern city where they can legally marry. If it sounds like a pipe dream, it probably is.

If Julia and Herman appear to be on a clear trajectory toward heartbreak, there's much more going on in Wedding Band. Childress purposefully highlights the characters coming and going at the boardinghouse where Julia lives, establishing the ground rules of an unjust social order that governs the lives of white and Black people alike. Lula Greene is proud of her adopted son Nelson, a private in the Army, but his enlisted status doesn't save him from being drenched in dirty water by white hooligans; of course, fighting back is out of the question. ("A Black man on leave got no right to wear his uniform in public," snipes Fanny, the landlady.) The cash-strapped Mattie can't collect Army benefits from her common-law husband because they aren't officially married; they can't free themselves from their previous marriages, as divorce isn't legal.) A white traveling salesman feels perfectly justified in asking Julia for quick sex, hoping to persuade her by noting that he won't take but five minutes. Fanny takes inordinate pride in her fine furniture and polished manners while looking down on the shiftless Blacks she sees surrounding her. And, of course, Julia and Herman's lives have been entirely governed by the need to keep their affair out of view.

Julia is new to Fanny's establishment and her affair with Herman is a cause for titillation among the others. (Then again, Herman by virtue of his ancestry, is suspected of wartime disloyalty; his house has been vandalized and his panicked mother and sister have filled the yard with red, white, and blue flowers to prove their patriotism.) But lurking in the background is the influenza epidemic, and the rules of segregation implode when, visiting Julia, Herman falls critically ill. He is too weak to be moved but Fanny, fearing scandal and possible arrest, refuses to call a doctor. When Herman's sister and mother descend on the establishment, a savage power struggle ensues.

As Julia fights with Herman's relatives over his welfare, the social striations and strained etiquette by which the characters live are exposed as the thinnest of fictions, designed to mask a profoundly ugly reality. (Wedding Band would make mighty interesting viewing for anyone who retains romantic notions about the Jim Crow south.) The play functions simultaneously as an affecting personal drama and a trenchant portrait of a society warped by white supremacy. Awoye Timpo's direction balances the play's micro and macro aspects, aided by a cast that excels across the board. Brittany Bradford's Julia is sensible, organized, and possessed of an independent mind, but behind her guarded facades is an abiding loneliness; holding onto to Herman has left her spiritually rootless and without close friends. ("You chained me to your mother for ten years," she tells Herman, an indictment that can't be denied.) Thomas Sadoski, looking old and worn beyond his years, makes Herman into a figure convincingly torn between duty and desire; he makes the most of the moment when Herman, delirious with fever, recites the speech, by the slavery apologist John C. Calhoun, that won him a twenty-dollar gold piece in his youth -- thereby putting in place a decisive wedge between himself and Julia.

In what almost amounts to a third lead role, Elizabeth Van Dyke is priceless as Fanny, whose grand attitude and love of gossip are their own forms of defense against a hostile world, as is her inordinate pride in her horsehair settee and silver tea service. ("The first and only to be owned by a colored woman in the United States of America. Salesman told me.") Just wait for the moment when she puts on her white-people's manners, adopting a twinkling smile and mincing gait. As she says, "Yes, I'm thought highly of. When I pass by, they can say, 'There she go, Fanny Johnson, representin' her race in-a approved manner'." She is an almost Dickensian comic grotesque, a prime example of the distortions wrought under Jim Crow.

In addition: Renrick Palmer, a newcomer, has a striking stage presence and a gift for nuance as Nelson, especially when tactfully turning down a proposition from Fanny. Despite her character's clueless, offensive dealings with Julia, Rebecca Haden is heartbreakingly awkward as Annabelle, Herman's sister, who wants nothing more than to marry a sailor and get out of town. Veanne Cox -- her posture as upright and solid as an oak, her lips permanently pursed in distaste at a sinful world -- is hair-raising as Herman's mother; it's a vivid portrait of a woman who has come from nothing and will do anything to hold onto her bit of respectability. ("A lady ought to learn to keep her dress down," she tells Julia -- and that's before their confrontation really turns poisonous.)

The production, staged with the audience on two sides, is well-served by an unusually evocative design. Jason Ardizzone-West's set places Julia's bedroom in a tall grassland that will be ultimately flooded with water. This distinctively Carolinian environment is burnished by Stacey Derosier's sensitive lighting and Rena Anakwe's sound design, which includes birdsong and band music in addition to delivering Alphonso Horne's jazzy, piano-driven incidental music.

Wedding Band builds confidently to the moment when Julia and Herman must face the knot of circumstances that both bind them and drive them apart, leading to an outcome that is both tragic and, for Julia, strangely freeing. Even in the wake of tragedy, the world is changing and who can say what comes next? Following Roundabout's stellar revival of Trouble in Mind last fall, this production eliminates any questions about Childress' status as a writer. It's time -- past time, really -- for theatre companies to look at the rest of her output. If it has anywhere near the richness of Wedding Band, we have some major treats in store. --David Barbour

(9 May 2022)

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