by Lynn on July 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ont. Plays until Oct. 1, 2023.

Written by Alice Childress

Directed by Sam White

Set by Richard H. Morris Jr.

Costumes by Sarah Uwadiae

Lighting by Kathy A. Perkins

Composer Beau Dixon

Sound by Debashis Sinha

Cast: Aliya Anthony

Eleanor Beath

Maev Beaty

Joella Chrichton

Ijeoma Emesowum

Liza Huget

Kevin Kruchkywich

Cyrus Lane

Jonathan Mason

Lucy Peacock

Antonette Rudder

Micah Woods

A gut-wrenching play about illicit love in South Carolina, in 1918 between a Black woman and a white man. Alice Childress’ play beautifully illuminates the difficult life experiences of Blacks in America at the time. Sam White’s beautiful production does the play proud.

Note: First a bit of information about playwright Alice Childress (1916-1994). Her 1950 play, Just a Little Simple, was adapted from the Langston Hughes novel Simple Speaks His Mind and was produced in Harlem at the Club Baron Theatre. Her next play, Gold Through the Trees (1952), gave her the distinction of being one of the first African-American women to have worked professionally produced on the New York stage. She was set to be the first African-American woman to have a play on Broadway with her play Trouble in Mind (1955) but the producers wanted her to change the ending to make it more palatable to audiences and she refused. So, Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raison in the Sun has the honour of being the first African-American woman to have her play on Broadway.  Alice Childress’ plays chronicle the racial inequities and social injustices of her time. For consistency, I will use the term “African-American.”

The Story. Wedding Band (written in 1966) takes place in 1918 in a city by the sea in South Carolina. The war is going on in Europe and there is an epidemic of some sort sweeping North America. We are in a part of town where African-American’s live. Julia Augustine has just moved into a house owned by Fanny Johnson, who Alice Childress describes as “the self-appointed fifty-year old representative of her race”. Fanny is nosey about Julia. Julia keeps to herself. She makes a living by doing hand finishing for a store selling ladies garments.

It’s a close-knit community—everybody knows everybody’s business. Other people living in close proximity to Julia besides Fanny are: Mattie and her daughter Teeta; Lulu Green and her son Nelson. Mattie’s husband is off at sea and she waits patiently for his return. Nelson is in the army but is on leave.

Everybody wants to know Julia’s business. All the more reason for Julia to keep private. She has been in a relationship for 10 years with Herman who is white. She walked into his bakery one day to buy some baked goods and he treated her with such respect that a relationship formed and they eventually got together as much as they could. A romantic relationship between a white man and an African-American woman was forbidden by law. So they kept it secret.

Herman’s family also has issues with race—they are of German descent—the war is on—so they endure racist remarks against them. Herman and Julia manage to have their loving time together until Herman collapses on day on Julia’s porch. Of course, we know that the epidemic is the flu (to give it its ‘regular name’ is pejorative and incorrect) and Herman has it.  He needs a doctor but that would reveal the relationship. Matters ramp up.

The Production.  The set by Richard H. Morris Jr. is simple and functional. The back yards of Julia’s (Antonette Rudder) and Lulu’s (Joella Crighton) houses are upstage on the long Tom Patterson stage. A section of Julia’s bedroom floats downstage to be the focus of the scene.

Julia is sleeping in her bed but is disturbed when Teeta is upset that she lost a quarter. Her mother Mattie (Ijeoma Emesowum) is furious because every penny counts in Mattie’s life. The row with mother and daughter wakes Julia from her sleep. She puts on her dressing gown to address her new neighbours.

As Julia Antonette Rudder is graceful, confident and has an air of diplomacy. When she offers Mattie (a forthright Ijeoma Emesowum) a quarter to make up for the one she lost, Antonette Rudder offers it to her with kindness and consideration. She knows Mattie needs that money and Julia can afford to give it to her.

Alice Childress says of Fanny Johnson (Liza Huget) that she is “the self-appointed fifty-year old representative of her race,” Liza Huget plays her with an air of importance complete with head toss to make a point. She has the nosey curiosity of a woman who thinks that everybody’s business is her own and her right to know.

Lulu Green is played by a caring Joelle Crichton. She is protective of her son, Nelson (movingly played by Micah Woods) and frets for his well-being.

And then Herman (Cyrus Lane) arrives bearing pastries. Cyrus Lane plays Herman as a bit awkward, shy, but in his way, confident. He could not find the door to the gate in order to get into the yard, but he kept trying. He is polite but of course awkward with Julia’s neighbours because he doesn’t know them. He’s not secretive about wanting to see her.

The rapport between Cyrus Lane as Herman and Antonette Rudder as Julia is familiar, playful and loving. They gently chide each other. When Herman says that his mother is one ignorant woman, Julia says, “Don’t say that,” as if defending her even though Julia knows Herman’s mother is a racist and refers to Julia (whom she never met) with the ‘n’ word. And when Julia refers to one of the women for whom she worked: “And wasn’t that Miss Bessie one mean white woman?” Herman replies: “Oh, Julia, just say she was mean.” Playwright Alice Childress puts things into calm, fair perspective.  

Matters come to a head when Herman collapses on Julia’s porch; he has to be moved to Julia’s bedroom and his mother (Lucy Peacock) and sister Annabelle (Maev Beaty) are summoned. While the family knew about the affair between Herman and Julia, now it is truly out in the open.

The mother and Annabelle enter the backyard with trepidation under the gaze of Julia’s neighbours. Both Lucy Peacock as Herman’s Mother and Maev Beaty as Annabelle have their arms close to their sides, as if they don’t want to touch anything, and they don’t. Their contempt is palpable.  The mother is an eye-popping racist towards Julia and all African-Americans. His sister Annabelle, is just a timid, blinkered soul.  Lucy Peacock as Herman’s mother spits out her invective to Julia with brutal hatred. She has expressed such disappointment in Herman because he was happy being a baker. One is stunned at the invective and at what Herman must have endured growing up.  Maev Beaty plays Annabelle as such a timid soul—timid around her overbearing mother and for just being in the world. Annabelle volunteers in the war effort, but life frightens her.

Sam White has directed this heart-squeezing, moving production with care, sensitivity and a commanding assurance in seeing that the story is served. Relationships are beautifully established. The racism of some characters is not soft-peddled. Sam White ensures that the message is given full force when needed. But then there are moments of aching love, touching kindness, and that too is conveyed with breathtaking care.

Alice Childress writes with a bristling rage through Julia and thoughtful reflection through Herman. There are angry exchanges between Julia and Herman in Act II that leave you breathless. Julia finally gets to say what she has been yearning to say since they had been together. She talks about all the ills that the whites have done to her people and she lumps Herman into that rage.

Herman: And you blamin’ me for it?

Julia: Yes!…for the one thing we never talk about…white folks killin’ me and mine. You wouldn’t let me speak.

Herman: I never stopped you.

Julia: Every time I open my mouth ‘bout what they do…you say…”Kerist, there it is again…” “Whenever somebody was lynched…you ‘n me would eat a very silent supper. It hurts me not to talk…what you don’t say you swallow down.

Herman: I was just glad to close the door ‘gainst what’s out there. You did all the givin’…I failed you in every way.

The speeches are angry, devastating and heartbreaking. Then they both acknowledge the true reality of the relationship.  She knows all the good he has brought to her life and he knows all the good she has brought to him.

The acting by Antonette Rudder as Julia and Cyrus Lane as Herman is terrific. Antonette Rudder walks a fine line as Julia; proud of her work and herself. She is generous but guarded. She knows the world she lives in and treads softly and with confident care. But with Herman, she can be her true self. As Herman, Cyrus Lane continues to show what a gifted actor he is. Herman knows the horror his mother is but contends with her. He knows what horrors Julia has endured and wants to shut that out when they are together. Herman is a humble, thoughtful, perceptive man. He is ground down by the world but buoyed up by Julia and it’s all in Cyrus Lane’s compelling performance.

Comment. Alice Childress has written a play about racism in the deep south in 1918, but it’s so vivid it could be about today. She has written about racism and shown it from various sides of the story: both African-American and white and not made it into a polemic. She has written about the hideousness of racism, and yet when Julia and Herman talk about it and are able to find their love for each other in that world, Childress illuminates her openheartedness when dealing with such a despicable subject. (One can only imagine how effective a training session of diversity, inclusion and equality would be if Alice Childress was still with us to lead it, as opposed to the horror shows we are reading about recently).

Wedding Band is a rarely done play that should be done everywhere because it’s so forward-thinking.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Plays until Oct. 1,

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (approx.) (1 intermission)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian Stein July 28, 2023 at 3:42 pm

Wonderful, insightful review. I’ve be recommending it to everyone. Some have already bought tickets.


2 Lynn July 28, 2023 at 11:30 pm

Lovely and thanks Brian. Good to see you there.