A review of “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White,” by Alice Childress, which closes out the 2016 Intiman Theatre Festival.
In Alice Childress’ searing “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White,” the title’s lengthy appendage provides a key to understanding what the play has on its mind.
It’s 1918 in South Carolina, and a black seamstress and a white baker have fought against the social climate for a decade. Their 10-year anniversary celebration represents a victory of commitment, even if they can’t get married in the Jim Crow South. One might expect the love/hate divide to be clear in such a scenario: the couple’s love thriving despite being subjected to an onslaught of hate from external forces.
But “Wedding Band” is more complicated than that, and Childress draws a discomfiting portrait of the way systemic racism has deeply personal results. Love and hate aren’t equal and opposing forces here; hate is so omnipresent, it’s poisoned the well.
by Alice Childress. Through Sunday, Oct. 2, at The Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way N.E., Seattle; $20-$40 (206-441-7178 or intiman.org).
“Wedding Band” is the final major production of this year’s Intiman Theatre Festival, which has focused on the work of black female playwrights. The fest was curated by Valerie Curtis-Newton, who also directs “Wedding Band” with great care and attention to every character’s personal turmoil, each one revealing in its own way about the limits of living in a broken society.
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This is the third Childress play that Curtis-Newton has directed in Seattle, following a 2006 staging of “Wine in the Wilderness” at ACT and a 2013 production of “Trouble in Mind” for Intiman, and it continues to affirm the vitality of the work of an underappreciated, underproduced playwright.
Dedra D Woods stars as Julia, a woman isolated thanks to her relationship with Herman (Chris Ensweiler), a white man of German descent. Unable to live anywhere for long thanks to prejudiced prying eyes, she’s moved again to a little house where she hopes she’ll be able to establish a quiet, detached life.
She won’t — not if her new neighbors have anything to say about it.
Childress excels at writing archetypal characters who aren’t bound by cliché, and she skillfully and efficiently introduces the members of the makeshift community around Julia, all of them eager to find out her story.
There’s landlady Fanny (Tracy Michelle Hughes), a haughty gossip who misidentifies Julia as a kindred spirit. Childress doesn’t shy away from comedy, and the way Hughes indignantly says “Me neither!” after Julia explains she doesn’t like to talk about people is just her first of many laugh lines.
The other denizens are not what Fanny would call “high-class, quality” people, but they relate better to Julia’s troubles, and have some pressing ones of their own. Mattie (Aishé Keita) also hopes to marry her longtime boyfriend, but she can’t legally divorce the abusive man she’s still tied to. Lula (Shaunyce Omar) worries about her reckless son Nelson (Jason Sanford) heading off to fight in the waning days of World War I, but she also understands it might be his only path to receiving some respect.
Julia’s revelation that she’s in love with a white man is met more with disbelief than disdain, and when Herman arrives with an anniversary cake and a wedding ring on a chain, it becomes possible to glimpse a better future for the pair.
Woods and Ensweiler create a sweet oasis in the center of the play, enjoying each other’s company and making plans for an eventual move north. In Curtis-Newton’s staging, this moment almost comes across like a dream sequence — and it might as well be.
The subsequent events might seem like an abrupt turn into tragedy, but Childress’ writing makes us feel the weight of generations of ugliness. Nothing in “Wedding Band” has happened suddenly; it’s been building for long before the play began.
Intiman’s production, staged in the intimate confines of the UW’s Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse, is beautiful, thanks to Robert Aguilar’s subtly shifting lighting design and Jennifer Zeyl’s set, which features a rough-hewed wooden backdrop splashed with blotches of watercolor brightness.
Childress allows for some beauty to shine through in her characters’ lives, but she steadfastly refuses artificial uplift.
In what is perhaps the play’s most striking sequence, characters including Herman’s mother and sister (Anne Allgood and Amanda Hilson) bicker about Herman and Julia’s relationship while he writhes in bed, sick with a brutal case of influenza. There’s fury and pride and righteous posturing, but no acknowledgment of the most-pressing problem at hand. It’s almost absurdist comedy, and it’s also stunningly, immediately real.