Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, founder of the NAACP, once wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” referring to the divide between races in American following the abolition of slavery. It’s this color line that was on the mind of playwright Alice Childress when she penned her 1966 play Wedding Band. It was a relevant then as it was in 1918 Charleston, South Carolina, the play’s setting. It’s still just as relevant now, nearly 100 years later, as well.
Wedding Band is the final production of Intiman’s 2016 Festival, one that’s been dedicated to works written by Black women. Between main stage productions, training programs, readings, and summits, Intiman patrons have been introduced to the work of more than 20 Black, female writers during this festival.
The play tells the story of of two lovers–Julia, a black seamstress, and Herman, a white baker–who want to marry but are legally prevented from doing so in the Jim Crow South. Dedra D. Woods makes her Intiman debut in the role of Julia, deftly navigating the character from quiet and reserved woman to angry and powerful one of the course of the play. As a character in a relationship stigmatized both in the eyes of the law and her new neighbors, Woods makes Julia’s control and barely contained frustration quite evident. From the beginning, you know that pressure is going to burst.
Chris Ensweiler’s Herman, Julia’s long-time lover, spends much of the evening suffering from influenza induced delirium. As with Julia, Herman suffers a lot of emotional pain, and Ensweiler’s nuanced performance of this Southern gentleman who just wants everyone to be happy makes this evident.
Woods and Ensweiler are joined onstage by a strong supporting cast. Julia’s neighbors include Aishé Keita as Mattie, Tracy Michelle Hughes as Fanny, Jason Samford as Nelson, and Shaunyce Omar as a scene-stealing Lula. Herman’s family members are played by the powerful Anne Allgood as Herman’s mother, and Amanda Hilson as Annabelle, his sister. Rounding out the cast are Martyn Krause as Bell Man, the traveling salesman, and Niani Maulana and Darrah Mehlberg as Teeta and Princess, two children in Mattie’s care.
Omar and Allgood both, in particular, give strong, tear jerking performances as Mother’s trapped by circumstance. When Omar’s Lula describes a gut wrenching moment of how she dragged herself across a courtroom floor pleading for the judge and jury to show her adopted son mercy, a humorous moment turns dark quickly as Lula says “They all laughed at me. I wanted them to laugh.” Allgood’s portrayal of Herman’s Mother represents the opposite end of the spectrum where, as white woman, she doesn’t suffer the prejudice that Lula must endure. But still, her character is just as helpless as Lula, begging the universe and anyone within earshot to just keep her family safe.
Childress’s writing is masterful throughout. While the characters are clearly built on stereotypes of the era, they are still clearly human, with some depth. Valerie Curtis-Newton, this year’s festival curator, also directs this masterful cast with fine attention to each character, blending their individual triumphs and pain into a well rounded ensemble. Jennifer Zeyl’s set is as much a star as the cast, easily evoking a sense of the early 20th century south, while maintaining an understated minimalism. Robert J. Aguilar’s lighting design is gorgeous, as are Mark Mitchell’s period costumes–especially Woods’ amazing shoes.
It should go without saying that stories about race such as this one are just as important in our time as the history they depict. But it cannot, and in fact bears repeating. Stories about race, such as this one, are just as important in our time as the history they depict. It’s sad but necessary to be presented with a story written in the 1960’s about racism in the early 1900’s that can be seen just as easily on the evening news in the 21st century. Curtis-Newton coaxes many strong performances from Wedding Band’s capable cast, and easily does Childress’ story of love and injustice credit. It’s an important story, not to be missed.
Wedding Band plays at The Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse at the University of Washington on Wednesdays through Sundays, through October 2. Tickets are available for purchase at intiman.org