There is a war in Alice Childress’ play, “Wedding Band”. Although it takes place during World War I, the war we see on stage at St. Paul’s Penumbra Theater is one that white people declared on African Americans long ago. At the center of our story are a couple who could be emissaries for peace between warring factions, a white baker and a black seamstress who fell in love and would happily marry if South Carolina’s laws of 1918 did not. did not forbid.
But the course of true love has never been smooth, and the playwright makes it clear that with any interracial romance comes a lot of baggage that both parties have to carry. It is a complex, multi-layered script that Penumbra brings to powerful life to open its 41st season. Filled with very lively performances, Lou Bellamy’s staging makes it clear that this play is an overlooked gem of American theater.
And this has been overlooked, as Childress wrote it in 1962 – seven years after his most famous play, “Trouble in Mind” (performed by the Guthrie’s last year) – and the productions of it have been extremely rare until recent years.
Why has he been dormant for so long? Perhaps because the producers and theater companies just weren’t ready to dive into the rough waters that must be traversed in “Wedding Band“. The issues of white bigotism and black anger are approached openly and often vitriolic in this play, with the characters spewing venom when conflict peaks. Now that Americans seem more open to a conversation about white privilege and the downsides of being black, this production offers local audiences a plethora of questions to stimulate such a discussion.
Julia is an African American woman who travels with some frequency in and around her city of South Carolina. At the beginning of our history, she has just settled in a small but vibrant black community in which women rule while men have gone to the armed forces or elsewhere, their lives centered on collecting income, practicing of religion and surrender to the racist status quo, some more bitterly than others. When Julia confesses to her neighbors that she is engaged in “forbidden love” – ââa relationship that has now lasted for 10 years with a white man – their subtle rejection makes it clear why she felt compelled to move so often.
But it’s a love we see in action when German-American baker Herman arrives, and the formalism in which Dame-Jasmine Hughes locked Julia finally merges into the warm comforts of fellowship with Peter Christian’s disarmingly natural Herman. Hansen. He has the palpable feeling of a lived partnership as they sit on his bed and exchange hopes and memories. Yet difficulties will soon arise as the influenza epidemic that ravaged America of 1918 has just called, drawing attention to the kind of “close relative” problems that same-sex couples have had to endure for decades. before finally being allowed to marry.
Julia’s role is demanding, and Hughes does an admirable job of bringing her frustration and vulnerability to the forefront, although she can employ a wider range of reactions and emotions as this button-down seamstress is pushed to the limit.
Still, she’s surrounded by a cast full of richly sculpted, high-energy characters. Such as the gentle preacher of Austene Van, all manners and diplomacy, and the critical landlady of George Keller who thrives on gossip, hurling insults backwards with dollops of hypocritical humor. And Laura Esping transforms what could have been a cardboard villain – Herman’s mother, a proud KKK girl – into someone miserably enslaved to her hatred.
But the outstanding supporting performance comes from Darius Dotch as the Soldier Next Door, a talkative womanizer who becomes Julia’s main ally in anger. It gives a powerful voice to the stacked game distributed to black Americans in 1918 and 2017.
It’s been 55 years since “Wedding Band” was written, but nothing in it seems dated at all. Sadly.
If you are going to
- What: Penumbra Theater âWedding Groupâ
- When: Until November 12
- Or: Penumbra Theater, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
- Tickets: $ 40- $ 15, available at 651-224-3180 or penumbratheatre.org
- Capsule: A powerful production of an unfairly overlooked play on race and privilege.