Wednesday 12 June 2024

Theatre review:
Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White

Alice Childress' 1966 play about segregation Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White is set in South Carolina in 1918, and the fact that it's the final year of the First World War is a constant underlying theme: Black soldiers like Lula's (Diveen Henry) adopted son Nelson (Patrick Martins) and sailors like Mattie's (Bethan Mary-James) husband are fighting the same as white Americans and risking their lives the same, but in an upcoming celebration Nelson will, like the rest of the black troops, have to add himself to the end of the parade uninvited; and when the war ends, however much they try to convince themselves otherwise, they know their contribution won't be recognised by allowing them into the spaces they're currently forbidden from. But if Lula and Mattie think they've seen it all, their new neighbour will confront them with one more taboo.

Julia (Deborah Ayorinde) has moved around the area a lot as she's been pursued by scandal; for ten years she's been in a relationship with a man without marrying him. She legally can't, as Herman (David Walmsley) is white.

As her new landlady Fanny (Trinity Wells, newsreader of the Apocalypse Lachele Carl) says, she hasn't even had the good sense to pick a rich white man, as Herman is a baker whose business is slowly being taken away by the big bakery that's trying to buy him out; he opened the store with a loan from his mother, and although he doesn't like his family he feels responsible for paying them back before he can move to a state where his relationship is legal. So he and Julia are now celebrating the tenth anniversary of considering themselves married behind closed doors, while never openly acknowleding their relationship in public.

The problems with this come to a head when he visits her in her new room: The other thing about setting the play in 1918 is the Spanish Flu is around, and Herman is struck down. It forces Julia to come into contact with his sister Annabelle (Poppy Gilbert) and mother Thelma (Geraldine Alexander) for the first time, and crystallises just how much of a bubble the couple have been living in.

Written at the time of the Civil Rights movement (and apparently not premiered until a few years later because its themes felt too on-the-nose for it to be safe) Wedding Band is angry and harsh, but a lot of that comes because Ayorinde and Walmsley have so convinced us of how genuine the relationship between Julia and Herman is: We know things are going to go sour or there'd be no story, but watching it is painful because the actors' chemistry has invested us in it. Paul Wills' expressionistic design quickly clues us in to the reality: Fanny is proud of being the first black woman in town to be permitted to own land, and, albeit a bit frostily, seems to take good care of her tenants, but the gates and fences Wills has surrounded every room with reminds us this is essentially a ghetto.

At the heart of the play is the way both communities object to the relationship, and I found interesting the idea that the black community doesn't just have a problem with it because they understand the implications, but also because at a time when slavery is still within living memory they associate interracial relationships with slaveowners sexually abusing female slaves. One other underlying theme to the play is the way men both black and white still feel entitlement to black women's bodies, with both Nelson and a white salesman (Owen Whitelaw) making unpleasant advances towards Julia; it's a reminder that it's not just the racial but also the sexual politics of the play that remain relevant.

Where Monique Touko's production slightly falls down is in the amount of different themes that Childress tries to get in but can't quite develop - notably a link between Julia and Mattie's marital status that feels like it's introduced way too late in the story - and can leave a few scenes dragging. But for the most part this is both intense and entertaining, as Childress has a lot of strong comic dialogue among the darker themes. Carl's Fanny is a regular source of comedy, having perfected the art of using a nightly prayer session to humblebrag about her success, while her pass-agg confrontation with Thelma is a chilly highlight. But the heart of the play is in the relationship we want to see succeed against the odds, and Ayorinde holds the play together even as her character unravels.

Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White by Alice Childress is booking until the 29th of June at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Mark Senior.

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