Last fall, Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, a backstage story, made its Broadway debut 65 years after its originally scheduled production was cancelled. Now a bolder play of Childress, the 1963 Wedding Band (subtitled “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White”), is receiving its first New York revival in 50 years since its debut at The Public Theater in 1972. Although this play was filmed for television in 1973 under the direction or Joe Papp, it has also been sorely neglected in the years since. Directed by Awoye Timpo for CLASSIX, a new residency at Theatre for a New Audience, the play has been given a potent though poetic production of a play that shows American racism at its most damaging.
Wedding Band tells an interracial love story set in Charleston at the end of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918. Charleston is where Childress was from and where her grandmother often told her the story on which the play is based. What one needs to be reminded of at this vantage point in 2022, this sort of a relationship between a Back woman and a white man relationship was illegal until 1967 in many Southern states and the participants were liable to arrest and prosecution. Called “miscegenation” at that time, this was a criminal offense until the Supreme Court ruling on Loving vs. Virginia, five years after Childress wrote her play.
Thirty-five-year-old seamstress Julia Augustine has just moved into a rear apartment in a secluded Black neighborhood in Charleston. About to celebrate clandestinely her ten year anniversary with her white baker boyfriend Herman, Julia has had to constantly move as she has not been welcome in the places she has lived before as her neighbors have worried about being prosecuted if their affair is found out. Herman arrives for the first time at the new address to the chagrin of landlady Fanny Johnson and the other residents bringing his gift, a wedding band on a chain so that Julia can wear it surreptitiously around her neck without anyone knowing.
They talk of moving to New York where their relationship will be legal and they can get married, though Herman wants to pay back his mother for her loan to buy his bakery before he would feel comfortable leaving Charleston. However, he does not make enough money to put anything aside as of now. Unfortunately, Herman is struck down by the Spanish flu but no one in the complex of apartments will go for a doctor for fear of being arrested. Herman’s racist mother and sister are notified and come to take Herman away during the darkness of night. The next day, Herman returns of his own volition leading to the final tragedy.
The relationship between Julia and Herman is portrayed in heightened poetic language which makes this seem like a 20th century Romeo and Juliet. Brittany Bradford as Julia Augustine who is self-sufficient with her specialty sewing becomes stronger and more confident as she has to fight for Herman against his mother and sister, as well as the disapproval of her landlady and her neighbors. Thomas Sadoski’s weak-willed Herman is not as convincing though he gives a compassionate, sympathetic performance. Neither the play nor his performance explains why he has never been able to stand up to his mother. Their enchanted relationship is depicted like something out of a fairy tale, rather than real life.
However, there are three confrontation scenes that are worth the price of admission: the quiet racism of Herman’s mother and sister the first time they visit Julia’s quarters, the second visit in which Herman’s mother spews virulent racism that sears, and Julia and Herman’s last argument where she finally tells him what their secret relationship has done to her life. As Herman’s mother, Veanne Cox rises to the level of a monster as she erupts with years of engrained prejudice that runs deep. Rebecca Haden as her daughter Annabelle, also holds racist views which she has been brought up with, is another victim of her mother who has a strangle hold on her life just as she has on her son’s.
The Black denizens of Julia’s quiet enclave are depicted as comic characters, in a different style from the others. As her landlady Mrs. Fanny Johnson, Elizabeth Van Dyke is the nosy, prying woman who puts on airs she may not be entitled to though she lords it over her tenants by holding the purse strings. Julia’s neighbors include the religious and hypocritical Lula Green (Rosalyn Coleman) and the naïve Mattie (Brittany-Laurelle) who doesn’t seem to know she cannot get a pension from her sailor husband if they were never legally married. Renrick Palmer as Lula’s son Nelson, a veteran of the first World War, is another victim of racism as the whites resent his appearing in his army uniform. Disappointingly, Palmer’s attempt at swaggering among the women does not go far enough. Max Woertendyke is sinister as a white traveling salesman to whom several of the women are in debt.
The startling set by Jason Ardizzone-West which ignores Childress’ description in the published text has its advantages and disadvantages. The audience sits on the two long sides of a sunken garden, in a new configuration at the Theatre for a New Audience’s Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage. Rather than show us three porches, it offers a field of weeds as well as the bedroom of Julia’s house at one end with no walls as though it were outdoors. Most of the scenes need to take place in this field which does suggest a rural back street but gives Julia no privacy. It does allow the audience a clear view of all of the scenes from anywhere in the theater.
Timpo’s direction is clear and unfussy. However, she has also decided to ignore the staging of the final scenes as originally written by Childress with a highly poeticized and ambiguous ending that somewhat changes the play’s meaning. Qween Jean has created a series of elegant gowns for the women at different levels of society. However, the men’s costumes are not as memorable. The lighting by Stacey Derosier is both subtle and moody for various times of day over the two days of the play. Alphonso Horne’s original jazz score played between the scenes is redolent of the old South.
Alice Childress’ Wedding Band, which is a difficult play to stage, due to its shifts in tone, is a major rediscovery. However, it straddles a thin line between realism and romance and its poetry needs to be handled very carefully. Unlike the tamer Trouble in Mind, Wedding Band has a very strong message and a good deal to say about racism in American in telling its sensitive interracial love story about a time when it was a love that dared not speak its name. While this production makes some problematic choices, the time has certainly arrived for this play to be returned to the American stage.
Wedding Band (April 28 – May 22, 2022)
Theatre for a New Audience
Part of TFANA’s new CLASSIX residency
Samuel H. Scripps Mainstage at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.tfana.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission