It’s been 50 years since Alice Childress wedding band appeared in New York, after premiering at the Public Theater under the direction of Childress and Joseph Papp in 1972. Ruby Dee then led the cast as Julia Augustine, a black woman in a 10-year romantic relationship with a white man in 1918 South Carolina. The play received critical acclaim, but never made it to Broadway.
Why it is, and why wedding band hasn’t been revived in the city so far, we could speculate for days. But we can also be grateful that it was eventually brought back, to the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, in a jaw-dropping production for Theater for a New Audience. Awoye Timpo directs this modern classic with his usual laser focus, bringing the piece back to its raw nerves and eliciting razor-sharp performances from an extraordinary cast. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, this production of wedding band must see.
This is partly explained by the strange resonance of the room. It is set during World War I as America suffers a pandemic and racial tensions simmer under everyday interactions. Brittany Bradford, in a virtuoso performance, plays Julia, a seamstress who has rented a house to Fanny Johnson (a royal Elizabeth Van Dyke), the only black woman in her town to own property. It’s the latest in a series of residencies that Julia (costumed in period-specific dresses by Qween Jean) has taken, because in South Carolina it’s illegal for her to have sex, let alone in a marriage, to her longtime love Herman (an endearing and conflicted Thomas Sadoski), a white baker whose racist family and upbringing complicate their relationship and reveal themselves in predictable and unexpected ways.
This feeling of wandering and searching for a home is captured in Jason Ardizzone-West’s setting, a crossing scene that suggests the swampy, reed-covered lands of a coastal South Carolina town. Julia’s bedroom stands in the middle of this gloomy vegetation, which lighting designer Stacey Derosier subtly illuminates to indicate scene changes. We long for her and Herman to escape this sepia-toned world for their chance at happiness.
Others in the neighborhood’s coterie of tight-knit women have found coping mechanisms to live amid unabashed bigotry. There’s Mattie (a wonderful Brittany-Laurelle), a poor woman who hopes against all hope for the return of her merchant seaman husband as she cares for their daughter, Teeta, and babysits a white child, Princess (Phoenix Noelle and Sofie Nesanelis, respectively, in adorable shows). And there is the soothing Lula (a memorable Rosalyn Coleman), who will do anything to protect her adopted son, Nelson (Renrick Palmer playing a black soldier who refuses to bow to white people), even if it means smiling at the petty tyrannies of a racist peddler (Max Woertendyke in a small but remarkable role).
Timpo solidifies our interest in these characters in the first act with clear delineations of their personalities and motivations, and she creates tension as they react to Herman succumbing to the virus sweeping the country (composer Alphonso Horne and musical director Mehemiah Luckett heightens such moments with haunting incidental music).
But Timpo saves the real emotional pyrotechnics for the second act, where Herman’s family appears, and insists on pushing Julia aside to tend to him on his sickbed. Rebecca Haden effectively plays Herman’s hesitant sister Annabelle, and Veanne Cox, jaw clenched as if she could grind marble, plays her mother, an old-school racist matriarch whose difficult life has transformed any compassion she could have had stone. His fierce clash with Julia, a vicious exchange of insults and recriminations, left me clenching my fists and hanging on to my seat. The audience’s closeness to the stage and Rena Anakwe’s crisp sound design make this and other fiery encounters visceral and shocking.
Childress’ fearless, unapologetic writing allows for scenes like this, even a disconcerting moment when Herman, in the delirium of his illness, spouts an incendiary speech by U.S. Vice President and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun . Whether it’s Herman trying to appease his mother or Childress describing the kind of racist statements that sometimes spring from the mouths of even the most well-meaning white people is up for interpretation.
Regardless of the strangeness of this scene, the power and importance of the piece remains. Broadway audiences recently had the chance to experience another play by Childress, mind problemin a superb staging starring LaChanze and Chuck Cooper. wedding band speaks to us even more directly now, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it also premieres on Broadway soon. Until then, this outstanding production should be your introduction to a play the author’s audiences can no longer afford to ignore.