Stage Door Review
Wednesday, July 26, 2023
by Alice Childress, directed by Sam White
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
July 14-October 1, 2023
Julia: “I want to rise higher than the dirt around me”
The Stratford Festival is presenting the Canadian premiere of Wedding Band by Alice Childress. The immaculate production of this undeservedly neglected masterpiece makes this play easily the most important show to see at the Festival. Written in 1962 and first performed in 1966, Childress’s play explores the interaction of Black and White people with such penetrating insight it could have been written yesterday. The performances and the ensemble work are all of the highest calibre.
Canada first saw a play by Childress (1912-94) when the Shaw Festival staged Trouble in Mind (1955) in 2021. Wedding Band, Childress’s next play, premiered in Ann Arbor, Michigan and did not see a production in New York until 1972. It had to wait until 2022 for a second production there.
The action is set in Charleston, South Carolina, Childress’s home town, in 1918. There is not so much a plot as a gradually revealing of the situation that the characters find themselves in. The focus is on Julia Augustine, a Black seamstress, who has rented a house in the back yard of Fanny Johnson, one of the few Black, let alone Black female landowners in the city. Julia has hoped to live a quiet life away from the prying eyes of neighbours, but she soon sees that is not possible.
Julia’s big secret is that she is in a steady relationship with a White man, Herman. When Herman comes to visit Julia on the tenth anniversary of pledging themselves to each other, he gives her a wedding band on a chain, since that is the only way she can wear it until they live in a state that accepts interracial marriages.
Julia and Herman’s goal is to move to New York City. New York was one of only seven of the 48 states at the time that had never enacted any anti-miscegenation laws. In contrast, South Carolina along with 15 other U.S. states had anti-miscegenation laws on the books until the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia overturned those laws in 1967. Thus, though it may be hard to believe now, when Childress wrote Wedding Band in 1962 and when it was first performed in 1966, one third of the U.S. states still banned interracial marriage. One of the main purposes of Childress’s play is to bring this profound injustice to light.
Julia and Herman’s plan is that Herman will buy Julia a one-way ticket to New York City and he will follow once he has paid off the loan he owes his mother for setting him up in his own bakery. Unfortunately, before the couple’s plan even gets started, Herman is stricken with influenza.
Those who know their history will remember that the 1918-20 influenza pandemic, known at the time as the “Spanish Flu”, was the most devastating pandemic of the 20th century and one of the deadliest in history. One-third of the world’s population became infected with the virus. The number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide or about 10 million more than the estimated 40 million casualties in World War I. The flu caused about 675,000 deaths in the United States or 0.5% of the U.S. population. Unlike the recent Covid pandemic (also caused by an H1N1 virus), in 1918 there were no vaccines to protect against the virus and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.
Though the physical setting of the play, so well created by designer Richard H. Morris, Jr., may look innocuous or even cozy, as does Julia’s bedroom, the subject matter is oppression and strife in all its forms. The most obvious source of oppression are the anti-miscegenation laws in South Carolina, a blatant example of institutionalized discrimination, that prevent Julia and Herman from marrying and leading a normal life. Childress looks at the full scope of such laws and sees that they thwart Herman’s happiness as much as they do Julia’s.
While Childress shows that marriage between White and Black people breaks a White-enacted law, she also shows that it breaks social convention among Black people. How could Julia possibly want to marry a man from a race that indiscriminately tortures and kills people of her own race? When Julia, talking with her neighbours, lets slip that her beau is White, the silence that ensues that director Sam White so wisely allows to linger, says more than any words could do. Julia’s neighbours who were just on the point of trying to be friends with her, find Julia’s news an insuperable stumbling block to any sort of acquaintance, let alone friendship. We see that, at this time and in this place, from the point of view of both Black and White interracial marriage is viewed as a betrayal of one’s race.
At the same time the life of German-Americans in Charleston has not become easier with the outbreak of World War I. Childress points out that Herman’s bakery has just been vandalized with an anti-German slur written across it. Herman’s own mother has changed her name from Frieda to Thelma in hopes of avoiding anti-German sentiment. (As a side note, Ontarians should remember that the city of Kitchener was called Berlin until 1916 when ths town passed a referendum to rid itself of the then-offensive name.)
Meanwhile, Nelson, the adopted son of one of Julia’s neighbours, is preparing to march in a parade before he goes off to war. The terrible irony here is that Nelson will fight for a country that requires his service to defend it but which circumscribes his life when he is an ordinary citizen.
The strife over miscegenation and World War I are both man-made battles that Childress view as products of one group foolishly trying to assert and maintain power over another group. Childress places these man-made battles within the even larger context of man’s battle against nature, here seen in the noxious guise of influenza – a battle that humankind cannot win. By bringing influenza into the picture, Childress makes us ask how human beings can waste their efforts in fighting each other when they all face a larger common enemy that knows no race and should bring people together as fellow sufferers.
Childress’s use of so many parallels and contrasts and placing of her central subject within so many contexts creates a play rich in meaning. The characters she creates are also complex and director Sam White draws superb performances from them individually and as an ensemble.
Antonette Rudder fully draws is us in as Julia. She shows us that Julia is uncomfortable and agitated from the very beginning. Only Herman’s presence can bring her reassurance and the one time when she feels safe enough to join her neighbour Lula’s prayer meeting. Otherwise, even amid her happiness Rudder intimates that Julia fears immanent disaster, and because Rudder is so sympathetic, Julia’s fears become our fears. Julia may seem mostly a passive character because of her situation, but when the time to fight back arrives, as when Herman’s heartless mother arrives, Rudder shows that what we took as Julia’s nervous nature was really Julia’s attempt to suppress the rage she feels at the injustice of how she and Herman have had to live for the past ten years. It’s a great performance and I hope to see more of Rudder in future.
For his part, Cyrus Lane gives one of his best ever performances as Herman. Herman, a calm, mild-mannered baker indebted to his mother, might seem a difficult character to make interesting, but the genius of Lane’s performance is that he accomplishes this task beautifully. Like Julia, we feel instantly more at ease when Herman is on the scene. Lane and Rudder have a natural chemistry and they demonstrate how Herman’s gentle nature is exactly what the more high-strung Julia needs. After Herman’s mother’s visit, the infuriated Julia attacks Herman for not telling her that his father was a proud member of the local version of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet, Lane’s Herman shows that Herman understands the source of Julia’s anger and that she should understand the source of his shame at his father’s associations. Lane has Herman tell Julia he loves her so sincerely that he both brings Julia back to herself and her true feelings and convinces us of its truth.
Childress has surrounded Julia with a circle of loveable characters. One is Julia’s landlady Fanny Johnson played with a delicious sense of comedy by Liza Huget. Huget shows that although Fanny may be haughty and put on airs, she is fundamentally a good person who will help when she sees help is needed. Loella Crichton is a real pleasure as Julia’s neighbour Lula Green. At first we view Lula as a shallow person whose answer for everything lies in the Bible. But, as the action proceeds and we learn more, we discover that Lula has spent at least half her life trying to atone for a tragedy by adopting and raising her boy Nelson. Crichton lets us see that if religion is the crutch she needs to help her overcome the pain of the past, then we should not criticize her for it. The naïveté Crichton lends Lula has both a comic and tragic side. Lula is so proud to send Nelson off to war, but it wrenches us to know how small the likelihood is of Nelson’s returning.
Julia’s other neighbour, Mattie, has already been affected by the war and by bureaucratic notions of marriage. Mattie’s husband writes her letters but she is illiterate and needs Julia to read them for her. We find that though Mattie considers herself married to her husband, the fact that she has no marriage licence means that she has no way to collect her husband’s salary. In a wonderfully acted scene Rudder tries to have Mattie view her husband’s letter in a positive light while at the same time letting us know how hopeless Julia thinks Mattie’s situation really is. Ijeoma Emesowum is a joy as Mattie, a woman innocently hoping in the face of discouragement that everything will eventually be fine.
As Herman’s mother, Thelma, Lucy Peacock gives a frighteningly fierce performance. The racist invective that pours from Thelma’s mouth is horrifying in its intensity and hatred. What is especially disturbing is that Thelma’s hatred is directed as much at her helpless, bedridden son as it is at Julia. Julia defends herself matching epithet with epithet, but Herman cannot. Childress is too smart to paint Thelma as a caricature of a racist, and Peacock intimates that Thelma’s anger is so high because Thelma fears the world is changing in ways she cannot control.
As Annabelle, Herman’s sister, Maev Beaty provides an example of how constant exposure to Thelma’s hard-heartedness has beaten out from the girl any self-confidence might have had. In a major irony, we find that Thelma also opposes Annabelle’s wish to marry the man she loves. In this case it is not difference of race but lack of wealth that outrages Thelma.
Mattie earns a living acting as a nanny for a White woman in town. She often brings her charge, a little girl symbolically named Princess, to play with her own daughter Teeta. For much of the action the two girls are happily playing together on stage while the adults fight, sorrow and rage. As with everything in this great play, Childress uses these two girls for at least two purposes. On the one hand, the fact that a Black and White girl can play so happily together is a demonstration that racism and bigotry are learned. Children who are young enough regard each other simply as children. They have to be taught that a difference in skin colour is somehow important.
On the other hand, despite Fanny’s pride in being a land-owner and living up to and beyond the standard of most White people “for the sake of the race”, as she says, the terrible irony is that little Princess as a White girl has more rights and privileges than any of the Black characters on stage. I am lost in admiration for this play. It is a play that we should all have known about and studied long before now. We are so lucky that the Stratford Festival has resurrected it from obscurity and given it a production that in no way could be bettered.
Photos: Antonette Rudder as Julia Augustine, © 2023 Bre’Ann White; Antonette Rudder as Julia Augustine and Cyrus Lane as Herman; Ijeoma Emesowum as Mattie; Ijeoma Emesowum as Mattie, Liza Huget as Fanny Johnson, Loella Crichton as Lula Grean and Antonette Rudder as Julia Augustine, © 2023 David Hou.
For tickets visit: www.stratfordfestival.ca.