The overdue resurrection of Alice Childress continues with this first New York production in half a century of “Wedding Band,” her richly resonant story of an interracial couple set in 1918 South Carolina. It opened tonight at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, oddly just a week before it closes. Let’s hope the run is extended, because it is hard to imagine a more beautifully rendered, exquisitely acted version of this rarely seen drama.
“Wedding Band” shares some of the same concerns and clear-eyed insights as her first full-length play, “Trouble in Mind,” the 1955 backstage comedy whose 2021 revival marked Childress’s Broadway playwriting debut, twenty-seven years after her death. But “Wedding Band” thrusts us far from the milieu of the theater, into a less familiar and even more insular world.
Written in 1962, subtitled “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White,” the play is actually a complex portrait of a community of distinctly sketched characters who are each in their own (not always appealing) way trying to break free of the restrictions imposed on them because of their race, ethnicity, gender, or class.
Near the end of World War I, Julia Augustine, (Brittany Bradford), an African American seamstress, has just moved into an out-of-the-way house that she has rented from a gossipy landlady full of high-flown airs named Fanny (portrayed comically but credibly by standout Elizabeth Van Dyke.) Julia had chosen the place, the latest of many, in hopes of living in quiet and anonymity. Both hopes are dashed almost right away.
Her quiet is shattered by her neighbors, who mill about in what’s meant to be the backyard of Fanny’s properties. Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West has chosen to have the backyard take up most of the playing area, squeezing Julia’s living quarters off to one end of the narrow stage (surrounded on two sides by the audience.) Appointed with waist-high but sickly-looking grass, the overall effect is to suggest both the poverty and the noisy cheek-by-jowl living of Julia’s neighbors.
Her anonymity is destroyed with a visit by a peddler (an energetic boor portrayed effectively by Max Woertendyke), who recognizes her from her previous residences, and assumes she’s willing to have a quickie with him, in exchange for some stockings, because he – like the man she loves – is white.
‘I wish you was dead,” she seethes, brandishing a coat hanger to fend him off.
“Bet that’s what my mama said first time she saw me. I was her fourteenth child.”
This is the first clue to how a Black woman would be viewed in a relationship with a white man in South Carolina of 1918 – as a loose woman — and explains why she keeps on moving, driven out by the disapproval of her previous neighbors.
It’s only after we meet a half-dozen of her new, African American neighbors that Julia is paid a visit by Herman (Thomas Sadoski), a baker, bringing a wedding cake and wedding band on a gold chain to celebrate their tenth anniversary together. They’ve been together ten years, but not married; state law forbids it. Their plan is – has always been – to move North so that they can be together freely, without danger of imprisonment. They haven’t done so already because Herman has had to pay off the debt he owes his mother for having lent him the money for his bakery. Now they begin to put their plan into action: Herman gives Julia money for a ticket to New York, where he hopes to join her in a year.
But then the world intrudes: Herman suddenly comes down with Influenza (one of many felled during the 1918 pandemic.) Fanny is too afraid to call for a doctor, who could report them to law enforcement for sheltering an interracial couple. Instead Herman’s sister Annabelle (Rebecca Haden) and his mother (Veanne Cox) are sent for. They too refuse to call a doctor, and wait until the cover of darkness to remove Herman from Julia’s abode.
It is one of the strengths of “Wedding Band” that the play shows how the restrictions of the state and of social attitudes of the times trap all the characters in different ways.
Mattie (Brittany Laurelle) has a daughter with the man she married eleven years ago, now away with the merchant marines. But she can’t collect his benefits, because the state doesn’t recognize the marriage – because the state won’t allow her to divorce her first husband, who beat and abandoned her. To support her child Teeta (Phoenix Noelle), she makes candy and babysits a white child, Princess (Sofie Nesanelis.) Both kids are adorably annoying, and Childress doesn’t waste them, offering a throwaway pointed exchange while they’re playing together:
Princess: You wanta jump?
Princess: Say “Yes, Mam”
Teeta: You too little
Lula (Rosalyn Coleman), whose no-good husband and young son both died, adopted an orphan, Nelson (Kenrick Palmer), who’s grown up to be a strapping young soldier on leave for a few days back home – and in so much more in danger at home than at war, that Lula spends much of her time apologizing to white people for her son’s behavior.
Even Herman’s mother is trapped during World War I by the prejudice against people of German descent; she pretends her name is Thelma, not Frieda, and plants red, white and blue flowers in her garden. It is telling that when she and Julia have at it, Julia is as vicious in her anti-German epithets as Herman’s mother is in her anti-Black invective.
Their scene, a screaming match, is a low point of the play, but also of the production. This was probably unavoidable; I can only remember a handful of such shouting matches that have been able to maintain clarity and control along with intensity and volume.
I also suspect that Veanne Cox (whom I’ve adored since seeing her as the wedding-averse Amy in an earlier production of Company) is not completely right for the role of Herman’s mother. She certainly assumes the proper pinched look of a woman who feels disappointed by everybody in her life, but she strikes me as too naturally elegant to be portraying an uneducated, narrowminded woman who (as Childress describes her) “has risen above her poor farm background and tries to assume the airs of ‘quality’” – tries but, like Fanny’s similar effort, doesn’t succeed.
These are quibbles. So much of this production directed by Awoye Timpo feels so right, including the generally pitch perfect cast, Stacey Derosier’s moody lighting, and the collaboration between sound designer Rena Anakwe and composer Alphonso Horne, who move us during the scenes between Julia and Herman with gentle jazzy horns that turn into an ominous muffled rumbling, as if something earthquaking is about to occur.
The heart of “Wedding Band” is the relationship between Julia and Herman, and I could call the performances by Bradford and Sadoski must-watch…. except that they are sometimes so intense that they can be hard to watch — even the love scenes, but especially the scenes of suffering.
“So many times you were nothing to me but white,” Julia tells Herman. “But most times you were my husband, my friend, my lover.”
Polonsky Shakespeare Center through May 15
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes
Written by Alice Childress
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West, costume design by Qween Jean, lighting design by Stacey Derosier, sound design by Rena Anakwe, composer Alphonso Horne, music director Nehemiah Luckett, movement director Renee Robinson, voice director Andrew Wade, dialect coach Cherie Corinne Rice, dramaturg Arminda Thomas, and TFANA Resident Dramaturg Jonathan Kalb
Cast: Brittany Bradford as Julia Augustine, Rosalyn Coleman as Lula Green,Veanne Cox as Herman’s Mother, Rebecca Haden as Annabelle, Brittany-Laurelle as Mattie, Sofie Nesanelis as Princess, Phoenix Noelle as Teeta, Renrick Palmer as Nelson Green, Thomas Sadoski as Herman, Elizabeth Van Dyke as Fanny Johnson, and Max Woertendyke as Bell Man