Brittany Bradford in wedding band, at TFANA.
Photo: Henry Grossman
Most playwrights end up being forgotten. Alice Childress enjoyed brief success in her lifetime – one of her plays, wedding band (Subtitle: A love/hate story in black and white) was frequently produced and even made into a TV movie in 1974 starring Ruby Dee, but in the following years it slipped from public view, ignored even by scholars and historians. But when that lost fame comes back, it comes back all of a sudden. Childress is not only being revived now, but renamedhis pieces finding their way into the canon three decades after his death.
Returning to a story she claimed her grandmother had told her, Childress put wedding band in 1918 in Charleston, where race relations were illegal. Despite the prim shirt dresses of her characters, the playwright did not speak of a distant past. (The exhibit is from 1963; the Supreme Court would not rule on Magnet v. Virginia until 1967.) Both wedding band and the other Childress masterpiece, mind problem, had been offered for Broadway productions during her lifetime, but producers awkwardly didn’t follow through once the playwright refused to soften her language – Childress wouldn’t dull her blade to surrender. at Big Time. You can see why they worried. She cuts deep with wedding band, exposing anti-darkness to the American bone. Childress writes that love is not a cure, nor is it the legal remedy she might see coming. One of our best theatrical diagnosticians, she traces the creeping gangrene of racism as the play progresses, finding it everywhere, in white hearts and black minds too.
It’s Julia Augustine’s tenth anniversary with her boyfriend, and she’s just moved into a new neighborhood. She’s hopeful, but she’s also bracing herself for what the neighbors will think — Julia (Brittany Bradford) is black and her lover, Herman (Thomas Sadoski), is white. Herman officially lives at home with his viper mother (Veanne Cox) and weak sister (Rebecca Haden), but because of the relationship, Julia is constantly on the move, stalked and rejected whenever she tries to settle into a community. black. Still, she hopes her latest set of neighbors — all of the tenants of striking Fanny (Elizabeth Van Dyke) — will be different this time around. Perhaps the witty Lula (Rosalyn Coleman) will understand, or her proud son Nelson (Renrick Palmer), whose service in the Great War made him a target of jealousy and white wrath. Maybe Mattie (Brittany-Laurelle) will sympathize, smitten as she is with her husband, gone somewhere on a battleship, writing his letters she can’t read.
Childress is particularly good at showing us complexity in a few strokes. His core pairing is as worn as an old shirt – the excellent Bradford and Sadoski play up the longevity of their relationship by seeming both warmly easy and a little indifferent. When Herman finally realizes that staying in South Carolina has become unbearable for Julia, he promises that they will leave, but there are also echoes of a decade of misheard conversations. He falls ill with the Spanish flu, and the fever brings all sorts of unwanted visitors – his disgusted family as well as ghosts in his own mind, a long-buried racist language he learned as a child.
Childress is an unwavering realist; she does not believe in any progress requiring the participation of white society. When Julia tells Nelson that his service will mean an advancement for the race — “Because of you…they’re going to take down the colorless signs” — even she doesn’t think that’s the truth. “If you just have to believe something, that might just be it,” she told him grimly. Childress, however, believes a woman can wrest injustice from him clean life from the roots. We see reflections of this ability in the other characters, for example in Lula’s insistence on building his own version of a church service, which doesn’t need a church. You start on the piece of land where you stand; you reject what does not serve you.
In the elegant staging of the Theater for a New Audience, director Awoye Timpo deliberately blurs the contours of the play. Nehemiah Luckett’s hypnotic jazz compositions melt the boundaries of each scene away from reality. The theater was laid out in aisles, with long rows of seats on either side of a dirt-covered median lined with tall seagrass. At one end of this central strip, Julia’s furniture and suitcases nestle against the soft fringe of grass. It’s an abstract idea of Franny’s property: when people come in and out of Julia’s rented little house, there’s no door, no porch, no change in lighting. Even the placement of the interior doesn’t stay consistent. Sometimes when people are standing in the middle of the play area they are in the house, sometimes they are not.
It’s clear that Timpo, set designer Jason Ardizzone-West and lighting designer Stacey Derosier had the South Carolina Lowcountry swamps in mind. It is a place of tide (the whole also provides it), both salty and fresh. At the end of this production of wedding band, a Julia dressed in white splashes up to her calves in water that has seeped through the floor – you will remember movies like Julie Dash daughters of dust, where Gullah women dance to the same kind of estuarine setting. In the salt marsh, the liquid world always finds a way in, no matter what you do to keep it out. So it’s a stimulating (and hugely beautiful) setting for Childress’ ideas about other things that seep out – a kind of mysterious, misty place in the light.
In the child plot, however, needs literal boundaries to make its storytelling clear. According to the dialogue, we are very in town. Julia found the country lonely and returned to live among the people – in Franny’s backyard, with its manicured lawn and nearby rental homes, in particular. Its door and its wall, here made invisible, are also important to understand the stakes of each scene.. When she can and can’t keep people out, that matters to Julia, and when people (especially Herman’s battered mother) come inside, it should feel like when a vampire crosses a threshold. All security ends.
The setting demonstrates a pivot in the focus of this particular show, far from wedding bandand in the thoughts it arouses. Sometimes production and script work hand-in-hand, as is the case with Coleman’s Lula and Palmer’s Nelson, who play with a complexity so deeply felt, you can imagine the whole parallel life they live just in offstage, and in Cox’s terrifying creation of a sick old woman kept alive by her own bile. There is, however, a small slip in the way Timpo handles Julia’s extremely delicate transformation. Childress’s text is dark. It ends up finding a way for the couple to be together, for just a moment, with Julia whispering to Herman about a fantasy they will never fulfill. But given our last glimpse of Julia in this production (dancing in a beam of light, shimmering water in an arc overhead), Timpo is less interested in this ambivalent escape and more in Julia Augustine’s healing, through the search for personal transcendence and spiritual ecstasy. To stage this, Timpo brings Julia to the side of the stage where Lula conducted his religious ceremonies, where the women sang together communally. Julia (and Timpo) find hope there, wading through the water. The image is magnificent; the joy is palpable. They only have to smother the game a bit to create it.
wedding band is at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center at the Theater for a New Audience until May 15.