The setup: Alice Childress was a pioneering African-American stage actress of the mid-20th century who also wrote several plays and the well-known young adult novel and film, A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich. Her play Wedding Band, which features an interracial relationship in South Carolina during World War I, was controversial enough that it didn't play New York until six years after she wrote it, and the TV movie based on it was pre-empted or run in the middle of the night by some ABC affiliates in 1974.
See also: A Song for Coretta from Black Theatre Troupe: The Movement's Not Over The execution: BTT's venue is intimate and comfortable while still looking modern and classy. Local legend Thom Gilseth has created a lovingly detailed set in which we can see inside main character Julia Augustine's cottage as well as the front porches of her neighbors, all of whom reside cheek by jowl in a back yard built up with tiny houses, a living situation with which we Valleyites are at least glancingly familiar.
Lillie Richardson, as Julia, demonstrates her chops as one of this theater community's best-trained, most compelling actors. She drives and carries the action even as she reveals her character's vulnerability and human frailties. The rest of the cast is also quite good -- Chad Krolczyk as Herman, the husband who can't legally marry Julia, gives their scenes together a sense of a mundane, well-worn yet affectionate relationship that feels genuine, and I especially enjoyed the gossiping of Julia's neighbors, which was often very funny while it also highlighted intracommunity conflicts and insecurities.
The sound design, by Humberto Gomez, features several popular songs of the era that are not that easy to find good recordings of, and they also mesh nicely with the setting and themes of the show. Mario Garcia created stunning and authentic-looking costumes and hairdos -- the finished products are even better than what you see in the promotional photo above. The uncredited props are of the same thoughtful quality.
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Wedding Band is a hard, sad, still somewhat shocking play to watch (though it's lyrical and entertaining, as well). The actors deserve mention for bravely enduring the real trauma of both delivering and receiving verbal offense, insults, slurs, and abuse we can now barely imagine tolerating. I particularly like the way Childress' script sheds light on both vital social issues and the smaller, personal ways that lovers and friends treat one another. The verdict: Wedding Band might sound as though it has nothing in common with the other play I reviewed this week, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It's certainly less upbeat and flashy. But both stories are about tolerating, appreciating, and loving our neighbor. And what happens when we don't.
We all suffer, but we don't have to blame each other for it -- some self-analysis and internal discipline are required to carry us all forward. I hope it will make you as happy as it did me to glean this message from both a fluffy, big-budget touring drag musical and a rarely produced, groundbreaking script presented beautifully by a Phoenix company that's been illuminating the African-American experience since 1970. Wedding Band continues through Sunday, September 22, at 1333 East Washington Street. For tickets, $35, call 602-258-8129 or order here.