Company: The Artistic Home
Venue: The Artistic Home (1376 W. Grand Ave.)
When Alice Childress’ “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black & White” premiered in the mid-sixties it was shortly after interracial relationships were made legal nationwide. Even so, scrutiny from theaters kept it from premiering in may venues until the early seventies. It courted controversy then, and it still does now, by pulling the curtain and exposing long-festering racial tensions.
Childress wants us to see how fast any pretense of tolerance or respect for social equity drop when the white characters in her story face even the suggestion of a shared social standing with black characters. With this production, the Artistic Home and director Cecilie Keenan are asking us to see how little this dynamic has changed in nearly a century. The defence and fondness that white “Wedding Band” characters express for their disgraced racist relatives is not dissimilar from what you might find emblazoned in the comments of a Breitbart article, today.
In “Wedding Band” a young, single seamstress, Julia (Raina Lynn), takes up residence in Fanny Johnson’s (Susan Anderson) South Carolina tenement housing for blacks, at the onset of the first World War. Julia seems like an ideal tenant at first; quiet, financially stable, and keeping mostly to herself with an unnamed, unseen beau. But when she reveals her lover of 10 years is a poor white baker named Herman (Scott Westerman) , Julia’s neighbors (Lisa McConnell, Myesha-Tiara, Kevin Patterson and Maya Hooks) brace for a battle with the law, social stigmas and unspoken racial tensions neither Herman or Julia want to face in their tenuous, blissful state. The lives and livelihoods of the men and women in this tenement have always been at the mercy of local white folks, and never is it clearer than when Herman’s mother and sister (Donna McGough & Laura Coleman) descend on the tenement to retrieve him. They bring years of barely repressed bigotry screaming to the surface in a strong enough torrent, that if Julia, her neighbors or any member of Artistic Home’s audience had not been an activist against oppression before, they sure were now.
There’s a syrupy quality of life for these tenants that director Cecilie Keenan ladles on liberally, almost to coax us into what will be bitter and tense for them all. Neighboring tenant Lula Green, played with calculating affection by Lisa McConnell, begs her son Nelson (played with not-quite contained seething anger by Kevin Patterson) to gird himself as she does in the presence of white folks, even if it means public debasement and trampled dignity. Likewise, we see the public and private faces of Susan Anderson as the hungry-for-prestige landlady Fannie, and poverty-stricken tenant Mattie, played with equal parts childlike dreaminess and cruelty by Myesha-Tiara as they battle hard for what little they can keep. They are held at arm’s’ length, just outside of white society, most notably by Reid Coker as a nameless peddler, who dogs his most exploitable clientele sinisterly for trinkets, payments and sexual favors.
Upper-crust white society comes knocking at the tenement gate in the form of Herman’s mother, Thelma, played dryly by Donna McGough, who comes in with the impossible expectation that she will remove her son without dropping a bead of sweat. While the whole tenement will oblige her, Julia will not, and Raina Lynn both shatters and reconstructs in a performance that cultivates Julia into a woman of rock solid continence that does not suffer fools.
Catch this performance before it closes (you’ve got until December 17th), and support a company doing Chicago theater the service of choosing authors of color, hiring actors of color and producing work that is far from easy. There are more black women onstage for “Wedding Band” than I’ve seen in all of the shows I’ve reviewed during 2017, combined. With a fraction of the funding and support extended to Chicago’s larger playhouses, “Wedding Band” has prioritized voices and stories of color in a way I hope inspires more theaters to take note.
TEN WORD SUMMARY: Between love and color, some debts can never be settled.
DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”