Theater review by Elysa Gardner
A young Black woman in a white dress glides through patches of wetland, then lies down carefully and wearily on a bed surrounded by marsh as strains of sultry jazz envelop her. The dreamlike lyricism of this lovely opening sequence may not prepare you for the ferocious naturalism that follows in director Awoye Timpo’s magnificent new production of Alice Childress’s Wedding Band.
Childress’s work has been enjoying renewed appreciation of late. Last fall saw the long-deferred Broadway premiere of her 1955 play Trouble in Mind, an exploration of race relations within a company of actors that Childress had refused to water down for the potential producers. 1966’s Wedding Band, subtitled A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, cuts deeper still: Set in 1918—during World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic, both of which factor into the story—the play traces the plight of a Black woman, Julia Augustine, in love with a white man, Herman, but unable to marry him because of South Carolina’s anti-miscegenation laws.
We first meet Julia—brought to life in a radiant and ultimately heartbreaking performance by Brittany Bradford—as she’s trying to settle into a new home, having been driven from others by intolerant neighbors. Her accommodations are modest, but Jason Ardizzone-West’s alluring scenic design emphasizes the warmth and openness represented by the natural world. Julia finds herself surrounded by other women who have had to fend for themselves, and have formed a bond despite their assorted quirks and differences (relayed here with expert comedic chops and poignancy by Rosalyn Coleman, Brittany-Laurelle and Elizabeth Van Dyke).
Their sisterhood is disrupted when Herman enters the picture. Played with great tenderness and vigor by Thomas Sadoski, Julia’s beau is a fundamentally gentle, responsible man who is nonetheless a disappointment to both himself and his racist mother, played by an excellent Veanne Cox. As developments threaten the central couple, Childress surveys the bitter legacy of bigotry—racial, nationalist, classist—in dialogue that can be as brutal as it is eloquent and humane.
Tensions come to a head in a final confrontation between Julia and Herman that is as powerful and as real as anything you’ll see on stage this season. The same could be said for this production as a whole, which helps restore Childress’s enduring work to the attention it deserves.
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White. Theatre for a New Audience (Off Broadway). By Alice Childress. Directed by Awoye Timpo. With Brittany Bradford, Thomas Sadoski, Veanne Cox, Rosalyn Coleman, Brittany-Laurelle, Elizabeth Van Dyke. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.