Wedding Band is an outstanding play by Alice Childress that receives a fabulous production at the Stratford Festival. The play whose full title is Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White was first produced in 1966 and the Stratford Festival deserves a salute for its choice and a standing standing ovation for the quality of the production.
As the title indicates the play is about a love story between a white man and a black woman in South Carolina in 1918 during World War I. Julia (Antonette Rudder) and Herman (Cyrus Lane) are deeply in love. They come from different sides of the tracks and the colour barrier but they have much in common including a deep love that has lasted 10 years. They want to get married but the miscegenation laws of South Carolina do not allow it.
Childress emphasizes the depth of their commitment by portraying Herman as a rebel and perhaps a misfit. He comes from a well-off (and savagely racist) family that had great dreams for its only son. Instead, he became a baker and borrowed money from his mother to purchase a bakery. That is where he met Julia, a customer of the bakery, and they are secretly husband and wife in all but the eye of the law. Lane gives a superb performance as a man of strength and commitment amid opposing forces in his life.
Herman gives her a wedding band on a string and brings a wedding cake to her house to celebrate their 10th anniversary.
Julia has moved into the backyard of a house in a black enclave in order to escape notice and recrimination. The enclave consists of three houses and its residents are the social milieu of the play that Childress presents and director Same White carefully and beautifully recreates. They are the downtrodden of America with religious faith, hopes and distrust, even hatred of the whites who had them as slaves within recent memory.
Antonette Ruddy gives an unforgettable performance as a strong woman in love and as the victim of hideous racism. The climax of the play is the confrontation between Julia and Herman’s mother (Lucy Peacock) and his sister Annabelle (Maev Beaty). Julia displays courage, dignity and strength in her position as a woman in love. Lucy Peacock, as the mother, gives a powerful performance as she seethes with hatred and contempt. She would rather see her son dead than involved with a black woman. The apogee comes when the mother asks Julia “who are you” and she replies, “your daughter-in-law, bitch.”
Maev Beaty plays Annabelle the old maid sister, as she would have been called then, of Herman because she had to stay and look after her mother and did not marry. Anabelle is just as racist as her mother but she has grains of decency and understanding. Beaty strikes that balance marvelously.
Julia’s neighbours Matte (Ijeoma Emesowum), and Lula (Joella Crichton) and her son Nelson (Micah Woods) with the owner of the house Fanny (Liza Huget) form a neighborhood with some religious fervour, social cohesion and dislike and mistrust of whites.
The set by Richard H. Morris Jr. consists of a view of a well-appointed bedroom that forms the central image of the play and is a symbol of the love of Julia and Herman. There are doors on each side of the bedroom leading into the house of Matte and Lula. The rest of the large playing area has a table and a few chairs forming the backyard or the common area of the neighbours. Superb work by Morris.
The costumes by Sarah Uwadiae represent clothes worn around World War I in the American south and they are appropriate.
We get a terrifically acted production directed by Sam White. She uses most of the playing area of the Tom Patterson Theatre efficiently and intelligently. The characters are spaced on the stage or placed together as necessary in proper juxtaposition. The scenes in Julia’s bedroom are sensitively directed and the whole production is a terrific example of good directing.
The end of the play has a masterly scene with Julia dressed in white raising her hands towards heaven as a bright light is beamed on her. It is apotheosis. Go see the production for more details.
Wedding Band by Alice Childress continues until October 1, 2023, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca