It is 1918, the United States is fighting World War I, and Julia Augustine (Brittany Bradford) has moved to the country. At first, Julia is guarded with her neighbors, the friendly Lula Green (Rosalyn), Lulu’s son Nelson (Renrick Palmer), and the nosy landlady, Fanny Johnson (Elizabeth Van Dyke). Soon enough, they all learn the source of her reticence: she is with a white man—a German, no less—named Herman (Thomas Sadoski).
The two have been together for ten years, but Herman’s mother (Veanne Cox), a loud-and-proud racist, prevents the relationship from flourishing. Herman knows she is wrong, but he accommodates and apologizes for her overt racism at the cost of full intimacy with Julia. When Julia tries to tell him anything about “white-folks,” he corrects her language: “People, Julia, people.” This forces her to talk about racism without reference to race and produces absurdities such as, “When people decide to give other people a job, they come up with the biggest Uncle Tom they can find.”
Alice Childress’ Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White has not been staged in New York since 1972. That was six years after its premiere in Ann Arbor. By then, director Awoye Timpo says, some received it as outdated: “On opening night, there was a loud protest by an audience member in a dashiki—just the idea that she would spend the time on this white man.” There is indeed an old-fashioned quality to the form of Wedding Band, which plays like a Shakespearean tragedy in its depiction of poor choices and inevitable misfortune.
But in its content, Wedding Band was and is more radical than it may appear. Julia’s insistence on naming the problem of racism in the face of Herman’s deflections continues to resonate with how post-Jim Crow American institutions insist on colorblindness as a means of avoiding discussing and therefore addressing racism. Consider the strategy currently being used by Republicans who evoke Martin Luther King’s “content of their characters” line to defend bans on critical race theory. The dystopian logic seems to be that acknowledging institutional racism amounts to being racist. “People, Julia, people,” says Herman. Later, he asks of his whiteness, “Did it give me favors and friends?” We hear the same plea today.
Timpo’s production, currently running at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is handsome, unfussy, and filled with strong actors. Childress may not have lived to see her work receive the attention it is getting now—she made her Broadway debut with Trouble in Mind last year—but I suspect this is the beginning of an extended dive into her bibliography.
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White runs through May 22nd at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Henry Grossman.