While Alice Childress’ profound Wedding Band is set in 1918 Charleston, South Carolina, where the racially intolerant miscegenation laws were strictly in place, skilled director Sam White and a gifted Stratford Festival acting company has ensured the play loses none of its power over the ensuing years.
Guiding the troupe through scenes, White treats the audience to numerous moments of true poignancy and strength of both individuals and community in their sadly never-ending battle against intolerance and injustice through the strength of love against all odds.
Written in 1962 but not performed by professional thespians until 1966, later produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1972, a year later it was finally broadcast by ABC on television, though several affiliates based in the South refused to carry it.
Many suggest at the heart of the work are miscegenation laws forbidding sexual relationships, marriage, and co-habitation between two people of different races, particularly when one is white. Most evident in this brilliant production is the resiliency of those most affected – particularly leads Julia and her white lover Herman secretively marking their 10th anniversary.
As White so succinctly points out in her director’s notes, “The beauty of Herman (Cyrus Lane) and Julia (Antonette Rudder) is that they are able to eventually, find their way to the highest spiritualization of love by her speaking her truth and by him hearing it.”
When considering the play’s full title that includes A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, the reality is those within Julia’s neighbourhood – a sisterhood – is composed of imperfect individuals, most feeling threatened that her interracial lifestyle will bring the law down on all – black and white.
In the process, casting director Beth Russell and White have assembled a remarkable cast that draws upon and reveals that those living – or barely eking out a livable subsistence – are far from ideal. The result is an array of uniformly brilliant and touching performances.
Rudder’s 35-year-old seamstress, while seemingly enjoying the notoriety of having an eighth-grade education, is lonely, isolated, strained by her decade-long relationship and, due to traditions, ashamed she is unmarried, legally, or otherwise.
Although genuinely in love with Herman, with the sole exception of him, she remains an outsider to whites, understandably her natural antagonists and even to a large degree within her black sisterhood sorority.
In a particularly taxing role, Lane excels as Herman, a part that demands both emotional and extreme physical strength, the latter because he is stricken with the global Spanish influenza that struck 25 per cent of all Americans, killing 500,000.
An uneducated, poor but tirelessly hard-working 40-year-old baker by trade, he is a compassionate but, like Julia and others is living sequestered behind doors because of this forbidden relationship. He battles relentlessly in his near-death sequences against the dominance of his racially intolerant mother (Thelma/Frieda) played with villainous gusto by Lucy Peacock.
In her 30s, Annabelle is Herman’s sister, a tall woman struggling with the supposed reality laid down by her mother that it is socially unacceptable to marry a man who is but a common sailor. Maev Beaty cleverly projects the complexities and social oddities of a woman who, while volunteering at a Naval hospital, with the racist overtones courtesy of Thelma, rejects a doctor being called to the home of a black woman to save the life of her white brother.
Unsurprisingly, Lucy Peacock offers another tour-de-force character interpretation as Thelma, who discards her real name Frieda because she is terrified of discrimination. Bitter, loveless and a Ku Klux Klan supporter, she’d rather see her son die a painful death than be with Julia.
In a raucous and prolonged shouting match with Julia, Peacock demonstrates with stunning results just how to get inside a role effectively and most passionately with virulent, unfeeling, irrational rage.
While disapproving of both his mother and sister’s stance on all social matters, Herman nonetheless explains to Julia the motivation behind their inexcusable behaviour:
Herman: “Mama and Annabelle made me so damn mad tonight. When I got home Annabelle had this in in the window. (Removing a cardboard sign from the bag printed with red, white, and blue crayon…WE ARE AMERICAN CITIZENS…)”
Julia adds, with a sense of confusion…“We are American Citizens. Why’d she put it in the window?”
Herman: “Somebody wrote across the side of our house in purple paint…“Krauts…Germans live here!”
As Julia’s landlady Fannie Johnson, Liza Huget is a joy-to-behold, strutting her stuff in grand style as the woman desiring to “represent her race in an approved manner.” Proud and brash, she adopts her self-designed social status demeanour with glorious airs of pretension.
A desperately poor single-mother black woman, Mattie earns extra cash producing candy while babysitting a white child Princess. After a failed marriage to a man who beat her but without escape as divorce is illegal in South Carolina, she is in a relationship with October, at sea with the Merchant Marines.
Ijeoma Emesowum beautifully captures the absolute hopelessness of Mattie’s dilemma, yet with an admirable display of self-sufficiency and dignity, the latter being a key aspect of the play for all the characters of Wedding Band.
Another seemingly inconsolably, destitute woman, Lula Green, may be the epitome of personal ruination, victimized by a woman- chasing, abusive late husband and living with memories of her son killed by a passing train at a young age when he wandered onto the tracks.
Joella Crichton projects Lula, a multi-faceted member of the sisterhood as a caring, compassionate individual who adopted Nelson from an orphanage after the deaths of her spouse and young son. She may worriedly shelter him to his detriment but she too personifies dignity and self-worth making paper flowers to sell.
Complexity is the appropriate description for residents of Childress’ world including Nelson Green, on leave from the armed forces. One moment brash and full of bravado as he boldly he proclaims Julia’s beauty, the next he’s intimidated by a lack of post-war opportunities as a black man.
A victim of an unfeeling, racially biased world, even his sincere proposal of marriage is rejected as his intended wife bluntly points to his lack of potential. Micah Woods understands and fully captures the vast intricacies bedevilling the young man.
With White’s well-executed and timely direction, she assures the actors’ attentions are at all times directed towards one and another, not using the audience as a sounding board, which could be a temptation for such an important production of both entertainment and educational value.
To break the ongoing tensions, there are even some gratifying moments of humour displayed by the main characters, with the bonus of outright salesmanship silliness from Jonathon Mason as the Shrimp Man.
The 30-something white Bell Man, portrayed in wonderfully two-faced nastiness by Kevin Kruchkywich, may deservedly be the most despicable part to grasp but he succeeds as the peddler of fine female apparel without a shred of common decency.
Owed payment by most of his female customers, his vile request of sexual favours from Julia for the purchase of stockings is met with her abrupt, stormy refusal and demand that he leaves the residence immediately.
As the work is a generational struggle for survival, there is the inclusion of Mattie’s young daughter Teeta played alternatively in fine style by Aliya Anthony, Aria Anthony, and Ariel Ollivierre. Princess, the eight-year-old white child babysat by Mattie and a companion for Teeta, is well played by Eleanor Beath and Madison Taylor.
So, what exactly is dignity – the word so often used throughout the play? Julia explains succinctly to Herman:
“Well, it…it…It’s a feeling – It’s a spirit that rises higher than the dirt around it, without any by-your-leave. It’s not proud and it’s not ‘shamed…Dignity “Is”.
Supporting director White and producer David Auster is an outstanding artistic company managing all production aspects: set, costumes, lighting, music, sound, movement, fight scenes, intimacy, dramaturg, child performances and creative planning.
Wedding Band is deeply moving five-star stage artistry focusing on love and the eternal quest of human rights for all, movingly and poignantly presented – simply must-see theatre at its finest for all audiences. It plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until Oct. 1.