Theatre Reviews
Photo by Keshon Campbell for The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened a strong production of “Wedding Band,” by Alice Childress. Set in Charleston, near the end of World War I, it is a deeply moving exploration of the impact of the miscegenation laws that were then in effect across the South.

This is the “love/hate” story of Julia and Herman. They’ve been together ten years, and would like nothing better than to marry. But—she is black, and he is white. In 1918 in South Carolina that’s a crime.

The play was written in 1962. It was first produced, in a college production, in 1966. It appeared Off-Broadway in 1972. ABC aired a TV version in 1973 (which was banned in Southern states). Only recently has this play seen revivals.

Scene designer Chris Cumberbatch gives us a common back-yard in a poor black neighborhood—two back porches and, at center, the bedroom of a third home. Old fences, a tree, a stump, a wooden wash-tub—nice domestic details of poverty. Glowing behind it all is a lovely evening skyscape by lighting designer Zak Metalsky.

We meet two single mothers, Mattie and Lula, and their children, cute little Teeta and grown-up Nelson, who is in the Army. And we meet Julia, who has just rented a room from Fanny, the prosperous black lady who owns all these properties.

Alice Childress writes such easy, natural talk—enriched with a lovely Southern black dialect. And these actresses seem deeply at home in it. Christina Yancy (Mattie), Tamara Thomas (Lula), and Velma Austin (Fanny) instantly embrace the audience into this little community.

But the play is really about Julia (Jacqueline Thompson). Though a newcomer—with secrets—her heart is hungry to join these friends. She’s been forced to move again and again, since neither Black nor White neighborhoods approve of her almost-a-wife relationship with Herman (Jeff Cummings).

Herman and Julia want to be married. She’s had a wedding dress in her closet for years. He’s even given her a gold wedding band (only to be worn on a chain around her neck). But they can’t be married in South Carolina, and Herman is unable to leave the state because of a $3,000 debt to his mother (for the opening of his bakery shop). They dream of moving to New York. But they can’t.

The crisis arrives when Herman falls ill with the Spanish flu. His mother (Kari Ely) and sister (Ellie Schwetye) arrive to rescue him from his shameful situation—in a black woman’s bed. A great racist scream-fest ensues, and Herman, in delirium, begins spouting a white supremacy speech by John C. Calhoun—which had won him a prize as an adolescent.

Now, a delirium scene (like a drunk scene) is a thing to be handled delicately. It is so easy to overact. In “Wedding Band” the final scenes get seriously over-wrought. We get, frankly, melodramatic.

The resolution in the final scene is a bit confused. Julia, wearing her wedding dress, and more than a little worse-for-the-wine, seems happily rid of the guy. She’s had enough. Has she really discarded the relationship? If so, we don’t see that moment of decision.

Herman, still near death with the flu, returns to her. Will she take him back?

The acting is fine throughout. Jacqueline Thompson makes Julia’s anguish so real. Strong work is done by Christina Yancy, and Velma Austin. Tamara Thomas, as Lula, showed depths beyond the written text—and a very lovely singing voice. Jeff Cummings did excellent work as the decent Herman, torn between his loves for his “wife” and his mother. Christian Kitchens, as Lula’s son Nelson, made us fear for the future of this fine, angry young man. It’s nice to see Ellie Schwetye back on stage (she’s been so busy directing). She beautifully embodies Herman’s quietly desperate sister. And Kari Ely is such a pro; as Herman’s mother she convincingly hurls out those deeply racist sentiments. Isaiah Di Lorenzo, tall, trim and handsome, is cast against type as the traveling peddler (who should be short and goofy), but he does a fine job.

Little Vivian Helena Himes and Lucy Miller (fourth graders) are utterly adorable as Teeta and Princess (the white child for whom Mattie is caretaker). These playmates are clearly the best of friends. A lovely, gentle irony.

Costumer Andre Harrington has a perfect sense of period and social station. Kareem Deanes, sound designer, places us right in 1918.

Director Geovanday Jones deserves high praise for this graceful, powerful show.

The Black Rep’s “Wedding Band” continues at COCA through March 31.

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