Wedding Band: a frightening love story

Penumbra Theatre, through November 12

Dame-Jasmine Hughes and Peter Christian Hansen in WEDDING BAND.

Interracial marriage used to be illegal? Yikes. That was in the Bad Old Days. We now live, thank heaven, in an era in which love = love. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia in 1967; the recent decision on gay marriage), your gender, the color of your skin, the shape of your eyes are irrelevant. Everybody understands this. To believe otherwise is, well, insane.

So what does a chestnut like Wedding Band (Penumbra, through Nov 12) have to teach us? Why do this play (written 1966 by the late Alice Childress, just before the Loving decision) in 2017?

Well, for one thing, Wedding Band rather effectively creates an African American community, revolving around an apartment building in South Carolina, 1918, owned and run by the effusive Fanny Johnson (George Keller), in which inhabitants such as Mattie (Ivory Doublette), Lula (the ever-wonderful Austene Van), Nelson the handsome WW1 soldier (Darius Dotch) and the three children: Teeta (Nia Symone Stiggers), Princess (Frances R.R. Ronning) and Beedle (Maya White). The life they have made for themselves is contained, sweet, comic, and quite stable. Fun to watch.

Until Julia (the astonishing Dame-Jasmine Hughes) arrives. She brings her “gentleman” with her, a white man named Herman (the always poised and intelligent Peter Christian Hansen). “Why did you move into an apartment in the back?” This “forbidden” relationship creates tension. Sparks fly – subtle sparks, but sparks nevertheless. Julia and Herman are risking everything for love. For life. “We just love each other.”

But Wedding Band doesn’t stop here. The play periodically erupts into vile and vicious hatred, especially when Herman’s mother (Laura Esping) and sister (Jen Maren) make attempts to “rescue” him (he is suffering from the 1918 killer: Spanish Flu). Resentments, rage, insults, explode. These are breath-taking. You want to look away, but you can’t. The artists, under the firm direction of Lou Bellamy, play this difficult material with unflinching and fierce courage. This is what gives Wedding Band real relevance: it is a penetrating exploration of the pain of racism. No wonder Childress subtitled her piece A Love/Hate Story In Black And White.

Wedding Band is not a perfect play. Long sections are static and the use of Spanish Flu as a theme rendered Herman, imo, a less interesting character.

But Hughes is a marvel. She was, for me, always interesting, but suddenly, and I can’t tell you exactly when and why, she exuded other-worldly beauty. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The scene in which she overhears the story of how she and Herman met amazes. It’s worth the price of admission to see this woman work. She’s on my (short) list.

Penumbra deserves great credit for taking on this difficult, and not always pleasant, play.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His Anna May Wong bioplay, How The Ghost Of You Clings, will be presented by the Playwrights Center as part of the 2018 Ruth Easton Festival. Please visit John’s informational website.


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