Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Speechless, Electra, Don Pasquale and R. L. Stine's Goosebumps, the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium
In the 55 years since Childress wrote Wedding Band the laws prohibiting mixed race marriage have been torn downserving as one of the precedents used to eradicate laws forbidding same sex marriage. Yet this is not merely a history play. It speaks to the privileges that come with being white, the unthinking ways well-meaning white people reveal their inheritance of racism, class stratification within the African-American community, the caps placed on the dreams of black men, and the essence of community among black women. The marriage laws have changed, but the reality of life in a racially divided nation, so vividly depicted in Wedding Band, remains an open wound.
Wedding Band centers on the relationship between a black seamstress named Julia and a baker of German descent named Herman. They have been a loving couple for ten years and consider themselves to be married, but without being able to share a common residence, enjoy the blessings of their families, or the protection of the law.
Julia is the new tenant in a boarding house run by Miss Fanny, who prides herself in having higher standards than the other black women who share her backyard. That includes Mattie, whose husband is off in the war as Maddie scrapes by selling homemade candies and caring for a little white girl named Princess. Next door, Lula has raised an adopted son, Nelson, now grown and about to join the troops heading overseas. The women are put out when Julia resists their gossip and social invitations. However, when Mattie drops a quarter beneath Julia's front steps, impossible to retrieve, Julia kindly hands her a quarter from her own purse to replace it. That coin was all the money Maddie had, but she won't take Julia's money until Julia graciously suggests that they are just exchanging coins: Maddie has her quarter, and she has Maddie's, keeping it under her house for good luck. This small gesture typifies Childress' ability to carve expressions of loving kindness amid the harshness of these women's lives.
A greater barrier arises between Julia and her neighbors when they learn that she has kept company with a man for ten years without the benefit of marriage. At first they suspect her beau is married to someone else. Assured that he is not, they offer her strategies to corner him into marriage. To stop their goading, Julia is forced to reveal that her companion, Herman, is white. Further, she asserts that they deeply love one another and only the law keeps them from being husband and wife. Well, the law and Herman's bigoted, demanding mother and weak-willed sister who cannot live her own life until Herman marries and bring a daughter-in-law into the family to look after their Mama. Mama readily voices disdain for the black population, never mind that she is the daughter of lowly sharecroppers and is vilified by her own neighbors for being of German descent while America is at war with Germany. Herman appeals to her to accept Julia, for Julia is "Not like the others." While this fails to persuade his mother, it does convey a hurtful message to Julia, speaking to Herman's unwitting, unspoken prejudices.
Lou Bellamy has turned over his position as Penumbra's Artistic Director to his exceedingly capable daughter Sarah, but thankfully remains an active company member. His direction of Wedding Band draws out every ounce of the love Childress so abundantly imbedded into her play, but with it comes the hate, the anger, the blind spots, and the dreams without hope, that make the love as much a source of pain as of joy. He keeps this long play rolling steadily forward, drawing us forward to hear every word and to see every gesture, and places us in the center of this backyard universe as characters enter and exit from all directions around us.
The cast could not be bettered. At the center is Dame-Jasmine Hughes, following a string of blazing performances (Sunset Baby, Pussy Valley) with yet another, conveying Julia's intelligence, kindness, independence and grit. She can explode with rage, then regain her compassion as a brave and loving partner. She and Peter Christian Hansen, as Herman, have crackling chemistry together. Hansen is a reliable leading man, with a broad range from Don't Dress for Dinner to Death and the Maiden. His Herman begins with the appearance of a lightweight, pulling jokes and deflecting Julia's worries, wanting only to enjoy the happiness of their private world together. This reflects Herman's naiveté and blindness to the imbalance in the weights carried by him and by Julia. Hansen persuasively depicts Herman's growth as he gains knowledge, both of himself and the realities of Julia's world.
Ivory Doublette is wonderful as proud and scrappy Mattie, with her own brand of innocence. Austene Van uses her innate elegance to portray Lula's pragmatism and dignity. George Keller imbeds pompous landlady Fanny with unearned superiority and barely hidden desires, and earns many of the laugh lines that help to balance Wedding Band's gravity. Laura Esping excels as Herman's hateful mother who cares nothing about love, and Jen Maren's Annabelle, Herman's sister, suitably expresses her distaste for her brother's choice, even as she too feels trapped by their family's small-mindedness.
Darius Dotch is stirring as Nelson, the strapping young man who bitterly knows that if he survives his term as cannon fodder in battle overseas, he will return to an absence of opportunity. Bob Beverage cuts deeply in a small role as the Bell Man, a predatory travelling salesman who pawns off American flags and trinkets to his African-American customers, egging on their patriotism while gauging out profits and whatever else he wants from them. Nia Symone Stiggers and Maya White are adorable as Maddie's playful daughters, while Frances R. R. Ronning gives Princess, the white girl in Maddie's care, a chilling air as a mere child who assumes her superiority because of her race. She does so not with any hint of malice, but just an expression of the way things are.
Mathew LeFebvre has designed beautiful costumes, rich in detail and period authenticity. The multilevel set designed by Vicki Smith effectively establishes the play's settings, giving Julia's room a homeyness she struggles to maintain, while Mike Wangen's lighting uses the transit of the sun to cast themes of lightness and darkness over the play.
Those who discovered the intelligence and power of Alice Childress' voice in the Guthrie's 2016 production of her Trouble in Mind will not be disappointed with her follow-up play. Written in 1962, it took Childress four years to find anyone willing to stage the controversial play, a theater in Ann Arbor Michigan. Wedding Band was not mounted in New York until 1972, in an acclaimed production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare Festival. By then, the 1967 Loving v. Virginia ruling had deflated the play's force as a rally for legalization of interracial marriage, and yet its themes and frank dialogue around the lived experience of race were still provocative. And still today, many will find it so. It is a conversation long overdue, in need of amplification. This beaming production of Wedding Band should be atop your list of plays to see this season.
Wedding Band continues through November 12, 2017, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are Adults -$15.00 - $40.00, Seniors 62+ $5.00 discount, Students with valid ID - $15.00, on ticket per ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.
Writer: Alice Childress; Director: Lou Bellamy; Choreography: Karen L. Charles; Scenic Design: Vicki Smith; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Wig Design: Andrea Moriarity; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell; Assistant Stage Manager: Charles Fraser; Technical Director: Jason Allyn Schwerin; Production Manager: Merritt Rodriguez.
Cast: Bob Beverage (Bell Man), Darius Dotch (Nelson Green), Ivory Doublette (Mattie), Laura Esping (Herman's Mother), Peter Christian Hansen (Herman) Dame-Jasmine Hughes (Julia), George Keller (Fanny Johnson), Jen Maren (Annabelle), Frances Ronning (Princess), Nia Stiggers (Teeta), Austene Van (Lula Green), Maya White (Beedie).