Tacked up by one of the characters, a portrait of Abraham Lincoln gravely looks down on the proceedings of Wedding Band. By the end of this searing production, set during a time when the Civil War was still within living memory, the Great Emancipator seems in danger of becoming just another symbol of our very imperfect union, like the flags that eventually come out, waved just as ardently by white bigots as by the African-American characters who live in daily fear of deadly violence.
Like the Guthrie’s current Watch on the Rhine, Penumbra Theatre’s Wedding Band highlights that for all the unprecedented affronts of the Trump era, the underlying issues are nothing new. It’s notable that both plays were written by women: Lillian Hellman in the former case, and in the latter Alice Childress, whose stature as a 20th-century master continues to grow.
Written during the 1960s, Wedding Band is set in 1918. The Great War is raging, and American forces are marching off—in segregated ranks—to join in that bloody and futile conflict. Amid the patriotic spectacle, Julia (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) reaches the 10-year mark in her warm and wrenching love affair with Herman (Peter Christian Hansen).
It’s wrenching because Herman is white and Julia is black, in a Southern state where intermarriage is illegal. Their violation of that fundamental taboo makes it hard for Julia to settle down in any one residence, but she’s ready to make a fresh start in a crowded yet friendly African-American neighborhood full of richly drawn characters who will soon have a crisis on their hands.
Penumbra founder Lou Bellamy knows just how to turn the compact stage into a window on the human pageant, and he does so here from the moment two children come skipping out onto Vicki Smith’s set, under a wistful cloud in a moody sky. (Credit goes to Mike Wangen for the lighting design.)
Few playwrights have ever had Childress’ skill at observing the complexities of social status without trivializing or sensationalizing. The play doesn’t forgive Herman’s hatefully racist mother (a steely Laura Esping) any more than Julia does, and yet Childress shows us that the mother herself has suffered from misogyny, classism, and wartime suspicion of German-Americans.
Hughes delivers a gripping performance as a poised woman who reaches her breaking point. Her fiery confrontation with Esping is heart-stopping, and she also has a quietly tender chemistry with Hansen. She has to confront him as well, in a scene redolent with painful insight. Interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving prevailed at the Supreme Court shortly after Wedding Band premiered, but Childress knew that in a society built on white supremacy, loving isn’t the end of injustice—it’s one step on a long ladder.
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