- Title: Wedding Band
- Written by: Alice Childress
- Director: Sam White
- Actors: Antonette Rudder and Cyrus Lane
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: To Oct. 1, 2023
With a sizable audience crossing the border to attend the Stratford Festival every season, the Canadian company has often chosen to treat American classics to thoughtful revivals. The new production of Wedding Band, the 1963 drama by the Black playwright and novelist Alice Childress, is something a bit different: a thoughtful revival of a forgotten American script.
It was the first script to be selected for production from a Stratford project to expand the Western canon to include more plays by women. (Curator-in-residence Hannah Rittner read more than 400 plays dating from the 17th to 21st centuries.)
Set in South Carolina during the First World War and featuring the story of an interracial couple, it’s not a perfect piece but it features a gripping climax of racial reckoning. Rarely produced since its debut, it has experienced a flurry of recent interest in the U.S. while the Stratford revival is believed to be the Canadian premiere. Directed by Sam White, this production does not always do justice to the play’s depths, but it does successfully champion a tricky script.
Tricky because it is both a funny play and an angry one. In Charleston, the solitary Julia (Antonette Rudder) is a Black seamstress seeking a quiet room in a home owned by Fanny (Liza Huget), a landlady with social pretensions, always trying to better “the race.” The other tenants include two poor working women: Lula (Joella Crichton) whose beloved son Nelson (Micah Woods) is on a brief leave from the army and Mattie (Ijeoma Emesowum) whose sailor husband is away at the war.
This gossipy bunch soon tumble to the reason Julia keeps to herself: She is having an affair with a white man, the baker Herman (Cyrus Lane). The couple want to escape north to Philadelphia where they could legally marry, but are held back because Herman owes his mother money on the bakery business. In their first delicate scene together they celebrate their 10th anniversary as Rudder and Lane tenderly demonstrate the deep familiarity of a well-established couple before revealing the pair’s love.
The tone here is right as White carefully balances her production, drawing out the laughs, especially from Huget’s delicious turn as the pretentious Miss Fanny, and adding a few joyous songs, without letting comedy over power the high-stakes drama.
While all the characters have their own subplots, Childress comes to focus exclusively on Julia and Herman. The threats posed by two unpredictable men, the hotheaded and amorous Nelson and a white peddler (Kevin Kruchkywich) who tries to blackmail Julia, are swept aside rather than developed. Everything builds to the moment in Julia’s room where Herman falls ill with the dreaded influenza – the play is topical on many fronts – and both Black neighbours and white family must decide how they can get him help while hiding the miscegenation from the authorities.
When Herman’s battle-axe of a mother (Lucy Peacock) arrives, it’s time for a showdown. Here, things become very delicate: She is viciously racist and when Julia finally confronts her, the opening night audience cheered, sadly revealing the character, despite Peacock’s strong performance, as nothing but a convenient villain.
Childress sees how prejudice seeps in everywhere – the well-meaning Herman often corrects Julia when she unnecessarily identifies someone as white, pointing out that her criticisms should be unrelated to race – and her retort to his mother’s racist diatribe calls out her German background, that ethnicity so derided during both world wars. The mother and the landlady Fanny are two sides of the same social-climbing character, one bitterly dark, the other cheerily amusing, but both trapped by expectations of class and race. Yet only Fanny comes alive in the play.
The old white woman’s racism, if not perhaps her foul mouth, is historically accurate; what speaks much more powerfully of 1963 than 1918 is Julia’s own racial awakening as she comes to question her relationship with Herman. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating moment as the character struggles with the competing demands of individual and collective identities, and Rudder handles it well.
Lane, however, doesn’t make enough of Herman’s recognition that their relationship is not fair to Julia, and both actors struggle with a particularly difficult section of competitive poor-mouthing as the couple continually interrupt each other’s descriptions of their impoverished backgrounds. Perhaps it’s a piece of potential comedy that should suddenly shade much darker; opening night, it was mainly indecipherable.
Ultimately, the production doesn’t carry the dramatic weight of which the script seems capable, giving us poignancy but falling short of Wedding Band’s potential as a new-found classic.
In the 1980s, August Wilson would famously back fill the American theatre canon to include Black experience through the 20th century with plays such as Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Turns out Childress had done it two decades earlier.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)