Alice Childress’s Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White is set in 1918 in South Carolina during the flu pandemic and now performed in New York for the first time in fifty years during the COVID pandemic, and that feeling of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” doesn’t only pertain to the pandemic. The central romantic relationship–a common-law marriage, were that not illegal in the play’s historical moment–between a Black woman and a white man is not, of course, illegal anymore (though that was quite a recent development when Childress wrote the play, dating nationally only to the Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, and in fact the South Carolina constitution was even then not amended to remove language prohibiting miscegenation till 1998). The play’s Black characters would no longer be prohibited by Jim Crow laws from setting foot into their town’s park. But other elements of the play’s racial and class dynamics still ring true: the way the white characters resist or resent being stereotyped for their race while having no qualms about doing just that to other races; the way that casual presumptions of power go hand-in-hand with sexual violence; the way that everyone is so eager to find someone worse off than themselves to despise.
There is a love story at the core of the play–Julia (Brittany Bradford) and Herman (Thomas Sadoski) do have genuine, tender feelings for each other and a decade-long, always clandestine relationship to show for it. (Bradford and Sadoski have a crackling chemistry whether they’re loving or fighting; the heart of the play lies their unstudied intimacy and the slow accretion of details that show just how intertwined their lives are.) But the precarity of their situation falls differently on Julia–forced to move constantly to stay under the radar and to live a life in the shadows–than on Herman, a struggling bakery owner who’s also allowed to have a separate public life with his family and in the community. But the love story is counterpoised with hate: Julia’s barely submerged rage at white people and the stifling laws of the South; Herman’s family history (previously unknown to Julia) with the “Knights of the Gold Carnation,” a clear takeoff on the Klan analogue the Knights of the White Camellia.
Julia and Herman want to shut themselves away from the world, build their own private life behind closed doors and ultimately escape to New York, but even that doesn’t quite work: or at least it only works if Julia refrains from expressing any opinions about “white folks.” And when Herman is stricken with the flu while at Julia’s home, she can’t call a doctor for fear of the dire legal consequences not just to her but to her community. And when Julia’s only possible way to save Herman’s life is to contact his sister (Rebecca Haden) and mother (Veanne Cox), she does what she has to. She thinks she’s prepared for how terrible this will be, but she’s wrong. Whether due to the fever or the presence of his family, Julia sees Herman’s opinion of her in a new and terrible light: not as the Black woman he loves, but as the woman whose “sweet blackberry kisses” he adores, but who he loves because she’s “not like the others.”
Childress situates the play firmly in Julia’s world–the backyard onto which her new apartment opens, filled with new neighbors: Her landlord, Fanny (Elizabeth Van Dyke), a “respectable” colored property owner who wants no trouble from, but also wishes no ill will to, white society. Mattie (Brittany-Laurelle), a young mother whose husband is off fighting World War I, while she can’t figure out how to claim his benefits. Lula (Rosalyn Coleman), a pious widow who adopted Nelson (Renrick Palmer), now a soldier as well, after her own son died. Julia tries to keep her distance and keep her secret, but that resolve doesn’t last long, and once the dam is broken, she seems desperate for the company whose judgment she is also desperate to avoid.
Director Awoye Timpo’s production tries to amplify that sense of the small, insular community by staging in the round. Jason Ardizzone-West’s set has Julia’s room emerge from the dun cattails and tall grass of the backyard and the audience situated as if we were looking out from the houses surrounding the central backyard, with actors entering and existing around and behind us. This does bring a sense of intimacy, even claustrophobia, but that doesn’t necessarily do the play any favors. The acoustics and sightlines are challenging, which means scenes often need to be directed away from subtlety to give ¾ of the audience any chance to see and hear what’s happening–and it also sometimes feels like the cast spends more time entering and exiting than playing their scenes; the staging highlights the mechanics of the play rather than its storytelling or character development. The excellence of Sadoski’s and Bradford’s performances isn’t the only reason the most effective scenes take place in Julia’s bedroom. Two other standout moments–Herman’s fraught reunion with his sister and an early scene where Julia narrowly avoids being sexually assaulted by a local peddler–also happen when the actors are given the chance to ground themselves.
The script also makes more of the relative class distinctions among Herman’s family and the different members of the Black community than this production seems to. Childress is careful to note, for example, the differences among the houses in the neighborhood, or that Herman’s mother is “well-kept shabby.” But while Qween Jean’s costumes add an elegant sense of time and place, they didn’t illuminate the differences in position among the characters particularly sharply.
Wedding Band leans more into world-weary sadness than the cutting irony of Childress’s Trouble in Mind (though Timpo’s direction also leans away from some of the dark humor on the page), but the play draws on the same simmering rage and exhausted frustration with the state of America.The particular resonance of this play lies in in its fractal structure, the way that the patterns of the individual relationships mirror the patterns in society at large; each character is a stand-in for a larger dynamic and each encounter is a small example of a larger story in this historical moment poised halfway between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement. The rot at the core–the roiling pain under the surface–won’t stay buried; the price that Julia pays for stuffing down the way she feels, always, is going to come due for America.