“Wedding Band,” by Alice Childress, profiles an interracial couple in 1918 South Carolina, but its message is still timely. The play closes Intiman Theatre Festival’s seasonlong salute to black women playwrights.
“Trouble in Mind.” “Wine in the Wilderness.” “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White.”
These plays by the late Alice Childress (1916-1994) were controversial when first seen Off Broadway more than a half-century ago.
To director and University of Washington drama professor Valerie Curtis-Newton, they are still provocative and timely today. She has launched a one-woman crusade to introduce contemporary Seattle audiences to Childress’ works, and to their author, who in her outspoken dramas and popular children’s books examined race, class and gender with rare, biting yet compassionate candor.
Previews Sept. 6-7, regular run Sept. 8-Oct. 2, Jones Playhouse, University of Washington, Seattle; $20 and $40. Tickets: intiman.org.
Curtis-Newton won applause for her previous Seattle stagings of “Wine in the Wilderness” and “Trouble in Mind.” Now she is guiding the 2016 Intiman Theatre Festival’s offering of “Wedding Band,” a trenchant profile of an interracial love affair in 1918 South Carolina. It begins previews this week at the UW’s Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse. And it caps off a festival, curated by Curtis-Newton, which honors several generations of black women dramatists with productions, readings and public discussions.
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“Wedding Band” is particularly close to Curtis-Newton’s heart. As a graduate student in the UW School of Drama, she recalls, “I got an anthology called ‘Nine Plays by Black Women,’ and ‘Wedding Band’ was in it. I just sort of fell in love with the idea that there was a writer brave enough to take on such a hard topic.”
Childress wrote her tale of a white baker and a black seamstress whose longtime, committed relationship brought them great joy and considerable grief, in the early 1960s, but it wasn’t mounted in New York until the ’70s.
In the play, Herman (played for Intiman by Chris Ensweiler) and Julia (Dedra Woods) have been shunned, scorned and unable to wed: In many states, interracial marriage was against the law until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such prohibitive laws unconstitutional. (“Loving,” a movie about Loving v. Virginia, the case that challenged and ended such statutes, comes out this fall.)
“Wedding Band” opens on the couple’s 10th anniversary together, as Julia presses Herman to move to the East Coast where they can finally wed. But the play also addresses the toll of Jim Crow segregation on others — on impoverished single mothers, a black soldier on leave from World War I, a snobbish landlady and on Herman’s racially myopic family.
The script’s unvarnished candor in its discussion of white privilege and systematic racism strikes on issues that persist and have been raised recently in the U.S. presidential campaign and via the Black Lives Matter movement.
Though both her white and black characters can be blindly mired in entrenched prejudices, Childress wants the audience to understand rather than vilify them.
“She doesn’t demonize the people involved in the system holding women like Julia down,” says Curtis-Newton. “And she doesn’t let them off the hook, either.”
A Charleston, S.C., native, and great-granddaughter of slaves, Childress was keenly attuned to the civil-rights and feminist movements, and one of the first black women playwrights to win national recognition. Her first success, the Obie Award-winning “Trouble in Mind,” is a charged dialogue between white and black theater artists, with an unsparing satirical critique of the patronizing images of blacks on Broadway. (Ironically, Childress withdrew the play from a potential Broadway run after producers insisted she give it a sunnier ending.)
Her well-read novel for young people, “A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich,” about a 13-year-old heroin addict, became part of a 1982 Supreme Court case after a New York school district censored it and other books.
And when a “Wedding Band” TV movie starring Ruby Dee was broadcast on ABC in 1974, some Southern affiliate stations refused to air it.
Such reactions just proved to Childress that she was casting light on meaningful social issues that needed to be openly considered and addressed. “Writing is a labor of love and also an act of defiance,” she once wrote, “a way to light a candle in a gale wind.”