Catey Sullivan has been writing about Chicago theater for more than 25 years. She is a contributing writer at Crain's Chicago, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She's been published in Playbill, Pioneer Press, the Chicago Tribune and numerous other outlets. She has an MFA from the University of Illinois.
(Left-right) Lisa McConnell, Susan P. Anderson, Myesha-Tiara, Photo by Joe Mazza, BraveLux Photography.
By Catey Sullivan
In the final quarter of the Artistic Home’s powerfully rendered production of Alice Childress’ “Wedding Band,” there’s a scene that’s as emotionally eviscerating as anything you’re apt to see onstage this year. It’s a blistering, white-hot, two-person exchange fueled by rage and irrational, unadulterated animosity. On one side is Julia Augustine, an African-American seamstress. On the other, the (unnamed) mother of the white man she’s in love with.
Julia and Herman have been “keeping company” for a decade. They’d love nothing more than to marry, but in 1918 South Carolina (and everywhere else), saying their vows would also mean going to prison for the crime of “miscegenation.” The passions unleashed as Julia (Raina Lynn) and Herman’s mother (Donna McGough) face off have scorching intensity that burns into the blackout that follows. The unflinching wrath on both sides — one rooted in righteousness, the other in sheer viciousness — is relentless, burning like an emotional afterimage into the blackout that follows.
Directed by Cecilie Keenan, “Wedding Band” is relentlessly compelling in its exploration of the very worst and the very best of human nature. The battle between Julia and Herman’s mother is the apex of the drama, but the entire production is fueled by similarly rendered heat, light and anguish.
There’s true love between Julia and Herman (Scott Westerman), a bond forged as strong as an iron shackle and that transcends the world that criminalizes it. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the seething bigotry radiating like a monstrous aura from Herman’s mother. She’s set on killing the relationship between Herman and Julia, but she’s got venom to spare. In McGough’s unnerving, formidable performance, Herman’s mother could snuff out Julia herself without batting an eye.
While the at-times overwhelming tension in “Wedding Band” comes from the virulent racism surrounding the small community of women in Julia’s world, “Wedding Band” is also rich in humor and defined by love as much as bile.
The context surrounding the drama is grim. Countless men of color were lynched in the early decades of the 20th century. The KKK was in full force throughout, all but entirely free to rape and murder without consequence. Not even decorated veterans were safe: When World War I enlisted Nelson (Kevin Patterson) comes home on a brief leave, he’s greeted by men hurling buckets of dirty water at his pristine uniform. Men of color who wore their uniforms in public were so punished for being “uppity.”
“Wedding Band” begins as Julia moves into new lodgings, taking up residence in a hardscrabble neighborhood where women rule the roost.
Her landlady is Fanny (Susan P. Anderson), a smug gossip who prides herself being the only woman of color in the country to own a silver teapot. The neighborhood also includes Mattie (Myesha-Tiara), a single mother who claims — to the belief of no one — that her husband is off fighting in the war. There’s also Lulu (Lisa McConnell), a warm, maternal figure who forever exhausted with worry that her son Nelson won’t survive the war. These women are all weary to the bone, but they are also built with steel. Coupled with the constant sense of being forever in battle just to survive, they are also women of faith, joy and hope.
When Julia’s arrival is quickly followed by a prolonged visit from Herman, the women find themselves snared in both a love story and a hate story. And when Herman becomes ill, the latter rears up in all its dangerous ugliness.
Keenan’s ensemble is virtually flawless. From the opening moments, the cast pulls you fully into the world of the play, creating an immersion powerful enough to make the world outside fall away.
Lynn embodies all the extremes of Julia’s situation — the frustration and the rage as well as the ebullient happiness that comes from being in love. Still, there’s barbed wire running through that joy. Not even giddy, undying love can protect from a world filled with Klansmen and laws intended to strip people of color of their humanity. At one point, Julia notes that trying to “keep my thoughts down” is a source of constant pain, reminding Herman that adding “whenever someone got lynched, we ate a very silent supper.” There’s dignity and ardor and anger to burn in Lynn‘s performance.
Westerman is also strong, especially as Herman’s health worsens. The onset of potentially fatal influenza is an open invitation for scenery chewing, but it never comes to that in Westerman’s performance. It’s honest to the end.
McConnell’s Lulu has the weariness of a woman who has been doing absolutely everything – from hauling water to nursing the baby – for decades. Lulu’s happiness is wrapped up in Nelson; in McConnell’s performance, you can feel the layers of worry and sadness wrought by his imminent departure for the war.
Anderson’s Fanny is deliciously vain, righteously bustling about and clucking about the faults of others as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Myesha-Tiara’s Mattie’s marital situation provides a telling parallel to Julia’s. Both are woman who have been thwarted in love (and summarily judged by society) by circumstances beyond their control.
There’s able supporting work by Reid Coker as a skeevy peddler – merely laying eyes on him will make you want to take a shower. As Mattie’s headstrong, rambunctious daughter Teeta, Maya Hooks is a terrific mix of unbridled, youthful energy and heartbreaking innocence. Teeta will grow up fast, and that realization makes her childlike exuberance bittersweet.
Set designer Kevin Rolfs’ dun-colored set evokes the unfinished planks and crowded conditions of an old slave quarters, a place where ragged laundry blowing takes the place of curtains and hard-packed dirt stands in for floors.
When Childress’ drama premiered in 1966, interracial marriage was still illegal. More than half a century later, the laws have changed. Laws notwithstanding, one need look no further than last week’s “White Lives Matter” marches to see that in many places, society still has a long way to go.
With “Wedding Band,” Keenan and her ensemble succeed in laying bare both the history and the timeliness of an issue that’s with us still.
“Wedding Band” runs through December 17th at The Artistic Home.