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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

"Wedding Band" by Alice Childress

Review by ANTHONY CHASE

A white man and a black woman celebrate their anniversary with a cake and a candle in 1918
Gabriella McKinley and Ben Caldwell in Alice Childress's "Wedding Band" at Ujima

Alice Childress’s play, Wedding Band, follows the relationship between a White man and a Black woman in 1918 South Carolina. The play crossed boundaries and broke taboos when it first appeared, using complex and flawed characters to expose the consequences of racism and wealth inequality between, but also within, groups. It is a remarkable and important play, and yet it is possible that you have never heard of it.

 

Ujima Theater Company is proud of its history with Wedding Band(The full title is Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White). Childress wrote the play in the early 1960s but couldn’t get a production until 1966. It wouldn’t be seen in New York until it was produced off-Broadway in 1972. Interest in a Broadway production fizzled because the subject matter was deemed too controversial. In 1973, numerous ABC television affiliates refused to broadcast a television version. When the play was produced by Theater for a New Audience in Brooklyn in 2022, it was the first major New York production of Wedding Band in 50 years.

 

And yet, with their current production, Ujima will have produced Wedding Band three times.

 

I saw the first preview of the production, two days before the its May 9th opening.  Even then, the performances were clearly articulated and strong. The evening gained momentum as complications built, and Childress’s highly admired confrontation scenes landed powerfully. 

 

In this production, Gabriella McKinley plays Julia Augustine, an African American woman who is in a relationship with Herman, a German-American baker played by Ben Caldwell.  They cannot legally marry in South Carolina.  As the play begins, Julia has moved into a small African American enclave of Charleston, where the sophisticated and self-important Fanny Johnson, played by Tanika Holmes, is the landlady.  We will learn that this is just the latest of several moves Julia has been obliged to make in a fruitless search for a place where she and Herman can find acceptance and community. 

 

McKinley establishes Julia as a woman of inner strength and refinement. She spends the first half of the play maintaining total self-control.  This will lay the groundwork for her explosive second act.  It is an expertly modulated performance, and the payoff is intense.

 

Caldwell too, takes an even hand with the role. This is a man whose life is succession of diplomatic negotiations, even with children he meets on the street. Some of Caldwell’s most riveting moments must be played when his character is bedridden and nearly unconscious.  This is man who, despite good intentions and a loving nature, nonetheless causes great pain.  It's a difficult reality to face.  Caldwell makes the transition with believability. 

 

The play begins on the day of the 10th anniversary of Julia and Herman’s relationship. His gift to her will be a wedding band on a chain to wear around her neck.  The symbolism is not accidental.  Before the evening is over, the impossible burden that racism places on every character will be laid bare and every decision, no matter how nobly intended, will turn out to have destructive consequences for someone else.

 

Childress sets up an intriguing balances of power in the little alley of homes rented out by Fanny.   


Lula Green, played by Jacquie Cherry, scrapes by selling handcrafts and is in debt to a traveling peddler, a White man played by Philip Knoerzer with odious perfection.  Lula’s son, Nelson, played by Cordell Hopkins is home on leave from the military and has run afoul of local Whites for appearing in public wearing his uniform.  Cherry plays the rigid and ultimately frightened Lula with an earnestness that sometimes borders on the frenetic.  Her fears, of course, are not unfounded.  Hopkins gives impulsive Nelson an note of mischief and an undercurrent of hopeful ambition that lend his ultimate frustrations an air of tragic dignity.     

 

Mattie, played by Nathania Sampaio, is raising her daughter Teeta, played by Nyeelah Broughton, while the child’s father, a man named October, is away with the merchant marines. Dangerously in debt, Mattie is unable to collect her husband’s military benefits, because their marriage is not legal. She earns money making candy and caring for a little White girl named “Princess,” played by Claire Takacs. This is a woman bewildered by the world. Illiterate, she is dependent upon others to read October’s letters, and she certainly can’t navigate the military bureaucracy that is withholding her money.  Sampaio creates a woman who is determined and resourceful, but whose options are limited by her sex, race, and situation.

 

The child actors, Broughton and Takacs, acquit themselves with admirable sincerity and conviction as they demonstrate the strategies of children to find equality within their unequal circumstances.  Princess, of course, is the youngest person on stage, but has more rights than anyone else.

 

Fanny lords power and superiority over everyone.  A snob and self-appointed guardian of “the race,” she comes and goes from their homes as she pleases and boasts about the respect and privilege status she enjoys with White Charleston. Holmes plays her with haughty grandeur, making her the source of a great deal of the play’s most delightfully catty comedy. She has remarkable comic timing and withering delivery.

 

When Herman first arrives on the scene, the neighbors are stunned.  Their reactions run from urging Julia to take him for all he’s worth, to Fanny’s titillation and curiosity about their sex life. Their assumptions and prejudices are played out in comical ways, and Act One leads up to a lively assembly of most the characters in the courtyard when, Herman, visibly ill, stumbles out onto the porch and collapses onto the ground. There is an abrupt and serious shift in tone.  This White man is no longer an object of curiosity or of scorn.  He is now a problem. 

 

This stunning reversal marks the end of the Act One.  The second act will involve dealing with Herman’s illness, which will require the arrival of his despicable racist mother and sister. It will also oblige Herman and Julia to reevaluate everything about their relationship and life together. 

 

The White characters, other than Princess, are a mixed lot of sadness and despicability.  Childress highlights the flaws of every person on stage, including Julia and Herman.  In Herman’s mother, we find a monstrous woman, who Childress rescues from being an actual monster by explaining her backstory.  This is a woman who has clawed her way up from her life as a sharecropper’s daughter, only to have her own children disappoint her spectacularly. Mary Moebius plays the part with fabulous acidity and venom.  This is a woman who would rather risk her son’s life than have the world see him taken out of a Black woman’s home by daylight. Marissa Biondolillo is similarly engaging as Herman’s somewhat softer but unhappy sister, Annabelle.  Biondolillo imbues Annabelle with desperation and longing for a life she thinks she deserves but will never have; the performance inspires our distain for the character, but also earns our pity.

 

Having attended a preview, I did not receive a program, so I do not have a list of the entire production team.  The costumes are excellent as is the handsome and detailed set.  There were moments that needed tightening or accommodation, as one would expect before opening – prolonged transitions between scenes; the end of Act One landing without adequately established shift of tone, heightening of stakes, or finality, prompting the company to start the applause from backstage; unfamiliar props, including an uncooperative book of matches. Still, this was a strong showing.    

 

Indeed, under the direction of Sarah Norat-Phillips, this is a capable and compelling production of Wedding Band.  The first Ujima production had starred company founder Lorna C. Hill as Julia; the second featured Hill as Fanny.  It is nostalgic and fitting that Norat-Phillips a founding member of the company, should end her tenure as interim artistic director at Ujima, a role she assumed after Hill’s death, with this great play. 

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