'Wedding Band' by Alice Childress
Now onstage at The Tom Patterson Theatre at the Stratford Festival
David Hou. Featured: Members of the Company
Guest writer Geoffrey Coulter, actor, director, arts educator
A thought-provoking, profound examination of racism, intolerance, violence and injustice in the American south of the early twentieth century and how love reigns victorious.
Some familiar-sounding themes make a lot to love - and think about - in Stratford’s production of Alice Childress’s “Wedding Band”.
“Wedding Band” is effectively staged on the thrust of the Tom Patterson theatre with actors making full use of every side and corner of the rectangular playing space. Some superb performances from Stratford stage veterans and newcomers alike make for powerful scenes of shocking intensity and, curiously, some that need more intensity.
Set in Charleston, South Carolina, near the end of the First World War, the story follows the illegal interracial romance between Julia, an alienated black seamstress hoping for peace in an out-of-the-way rooming house and a white baker named Herman. Julia is desperately trying to avoid the prying eyes and ears of gossipy neighbours. On their 10th anniversary, Herman visits Julia with a celebratory cake, a wedding band on a chain and a plan for both to leave the south for New York City, where they can be legally married. But soon, Herman is stricken by the great influenza pandemic brought home by American soldiers returning from the trenches in France. Julia’s landlord is afraid to call for a (white) doctor, and soon Herman’s mother and sister arrive on the scene to care for their ailing kin. When they learn of Herman’s relationship with Julia, tensions boil over, and secrets are revealed!
The American south of 1918 was a very dangerous place to be for an interracial couple. Racist social conventions and the threat of violence for such a union were omnipresent. The only option for many was to leave the south for the more “liberal” northern states where they could wed and be deemed a “legal” couple.
Director Sam White beautifully crafts the old spiritual “Jacob’s Ladder” (beautifully sung throughout the production by the cast) as a metaphor for humans - black and white - for reaching our highest potential, our brightest future. According to her program notes, socioeconomic status, race, and gender, forces us to live on a rung by a system that oppresses the less powerful. Though she references 1918, you can’t help but connect the precarious race relations in America today. Kudos to her very deliberate placement of little girls, black Teeta and white Princess, who scamper on and off-stage holding hands, playing patty cake, blissfully unaware of race and prejudice. Their brief but essential appearances starkly contrast the hostilities of the adult world.
White deftly sculpts her supporting characters and cultivates lovely performances from each. She avoids the potential pitfall of a thrust stage by positioning her actors to avoid extended periods with their backs to the audience, mostly. There were two disappointing exceptions in Act 2 with scenes between Julia and her friends Mattie and Lula.
They were statically placed facing “downstage,” from my vantage point on the left side of the stage, I couldn’t always make out what seemed to be rather critical dialogue.
Richard H. Morris Jr.’s set provides lovely hints that allow us to fill in the gaps - a few picket fences, a chair and table and a tree stump. Upstage boasted a detailed, era-appropriate boarding house façade with an ingenious bedroom suite that glides silently to centre stage and back, giving the audience the full effect of some shocking scenes.
Lighting by Kathy A. Perkins provides subtle texture, reflecting the emotional intensity of the scenes with well-chosen amber and blue values. Sarah Uwadiae’s fabulously authentic and detailed period costumes, including a fully equipped soldier bound for the trenches, effortlessly demonstrate the class structure of the affluent and the oppressed.
Shout out to the original music by Beau Dixon and Music Director Franklin Brasz. Dixon’s fusion of twangy blues with classic spiritual, and Brasz’s direction of the cast’s choral work on Jacob’s Ladder, set the tone brilliantly and maintain it through scene transitions and incidentals.
A fine cast of actors takes on these disparate characters, all with their own unique storyline. The female characters are a joy to watch - whether faced with adversity or being the cause of it. These women are all well-defined and performed to perfection, mostly. As Fanny Johnson, the fiery landlady of the rooming house who pretends to belong to a better social class as a property owner while “representing her race in an approved manner”, Liza Huget is excellent, injecting humour, disgust, apathy, and judgement in equal measure. Ijeoma Emesowum as Mattie, a poor single mother with a husband away in the merchant marines, wonderfully portrays a woman beaten and struggling to make ends meet. Joella Chrichton’s portrayal of Lula Green, another poor woman who lost her first child in a tragic accident, is delicate and emotional.
As Julia, the uneducated, outcast seamstress, Antonette Rudder gives a brave and heartfelt performance that doesn’t quite hit the mark. I wanted more risk-taking in her portrayal. Julia is a poor black woman, rejected by her own race showing the strain of social isolation. But I didn’t see it. Her scenes with Herman lacked similar depth and subtly. Sadly, by the end of the play, I wasn’t as invested in her character’s journey and outcome as I was in everyone else’s.
Maev Beatty is compelling as Annabelle, sister of Herman, desperate to break free of her mother’s influence to marry the man she loves. Lucy Peacock is a marvel as Thelma (Freida), the racist mother of Annabelle and Herman, a social class pretender and supporter of the KKK. Her expert performance is authentic and compelling. Her shouting match with Julia over the theft of money from Herman’s wallet escalates into a verbal battle of racial insults so intense it leaves this reviewer breathless.
Cyrus Lane as Herman embodies his role as the poor, hardworking baker who doesn’t see race, just people. He loves Julia, to be sure, but I wasn’t convinced she’s his soulmate. This was my biggest problem. Though White’s vision of colour-blind love is abundantly clear, the private bedroom scenes between Herman and Julia lacked subtle tenderness and natural passion. This couple has had a clandestine relationship for a decade, but my companion and I weren’t sold on their passion. However, an intimacy director is credited in the program.
As Nelson Green, the adopted son of Lula on leave from the trenches, Micah Woods is a revelation. This young actor’s work is a joy to behold, injecting the right amount of bravado, fear, and intimidation as a young black soldier with a dubious future. An exceptional multi-layered performance.
The rest of the cast - Aliya/Aria Anthony as Teeta, Jonathan Mason as Shrimp Man, Kevin Kruchkywich as Bell Man and Madison Taylor Mackenzie as Princess - handle their respective supporting roles with aplomb.
“Wedding Band” is thoroughly enlightening, relevant, educational, and entertaining. Its themes of racial injustice and intolerance, miscegenation, segregation, single motherhood, alienation, and loneliness amid a virulent pandemic, make me think nothing much has changed in America in 105 years.
But the beauty of this play is its simple message. It wasn’t written to victimize black people or make white people feel guilty. It was written to spotlight the history of black people, to remind us of the past so that we can (hopefully) enjoy a better future together.
Running time: approximately two hours and twenty-four minutes.
The production runs until October 1 at the Tom Patterson Theatre. For tickets, visit stratfordfestival.ca.