Review: WEDDING BAND at The Catherine B. Berges Theatre At COCA

The Black Rep tells Alice Childress Story of 1918 Racism in South Carolina

By: Mar. 17, 2024
Enter Your Email to Unlock This Article

Plus, get the best of BroadwayWorld delivered to your inbox, and unlimited access to our editorial content across the globe.

Existing user? Just click login.

It was less than 60 years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down state laws banning marriages between individuals of different races. The Supreme Court ruled in an opinion authored by Chief Justice Earl Warren that anti-miscegenation laws violate both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of The Fourteenth Amendment. South Carolina and Alabama had not removed this ban from their constitutions until the turn of this century. A 1998 article in the Washinton Post reported “that mixed race couples who lived in South Carolina still felt a strong sense of social isolation and reported that South Carolina has proven to be one of the most difficult places for mixed race couples to live.” This oppression and outward racism are not so distant history, thus making Alice Childress’ 1963 play WEDDING BAND still incredibly relevant 61-years since it was first published and performed. 

WEDDING BAND is the story of a mixed-race couple, Julia Augustine and Herman, who were forced to keep their decade-long love affair a secret out of fear of prosecution and incarceration. Childress’ play is set in 1918 in Charleston, South Carolina, against the backdrop of World War I and nearing the end of the Spanish Influenza Pandemic. WEDDING BAND examines racism, anti-miscegnation laws, and the pressure felt by mixed-race couples resulting from the laws, their families, and their communities.  

The play and opens with a landlord, Faye (Velma Austin), and one of her tenants, Mattie (Christina Yancy) who is making a ruckus while disciplining her child for losing money. When the rest of Faye’s tenants emerge from their housing to see what the fuss is about, the audience meets Julia (Jacqueline Thompson), the newest tenant renting a residence on Faye’s property. 

Review: WEDDING BAND at The Catherine B. Berges Theatre At COCA

Julia, played magnificently by Jacqueline Thompson, is a seamstress who has become somewhat of a nomad. She has been forced to move frequently because of her neighbors’ fear of prosecution resulting from Julia’s mixed-race relationship with Herman (Jeff Cummings). Thompson portrays Julia with all the optimism of a lady smitten with a brand-new boyfriend even though she and Herman will soon celebrate their 10th anniversary as a couple. Thompson’s Julia is a loving and kind woman. She is who is certain that a move to the Northeast will solve her and Herman’s problems and allow them to marry. As the pressures mount, including Herman’s illness with influenza, Julia crumbles. When pushed into a corner and brutally berated by Herman’s Mother (Kari Ely), Julia fights back and stands up for herself in the face of strong bigotry and hatred. Thompson’s character transition is majestic, fighting a battle that Julia knows she cannot win in 1918 South Carolina. Thompson’s performance ranges from soft, loving, and caring to anger, indignation, and heartbreak. Thompson is phenomenal as Julia.  

Director Geovonday Jones has assembled an extraordinary cast and evoked exceptional performances to tell the story of Julia and Herman’s love affair. The vivacious Velma Austin delivers a spirited portrayal of the landlord Fanny. Austin’s physical embodiment gives Fanny amusing comedic movements juxtaposed by the mental and emotional realization that Julia and Herman’s relationship pose a significant threat to her status as a real estate owner. Fanny’s other renters are played by the luminous pair of Christina Yancy and Tamara Thomas. Yancy paints Mattie with naiveté and hope, waiting for the return of her boyfriend from the war. It’s her credulousness that ultimately leads to her own disappointment. Thomas gives Lula a gruff exterior, but under that calloused facade is the heart of a mother who deeply loves her son and a woman who genuinely cares about helping her neighbors. Both Yancy and Thomas’ performances are charismatic and hit all the right notes. They are a joy to watch perform. 

Review: WEDDING BAND at The Catherine B. Berges Theatre At COCA

Jeff Cummings, as Julia’s boyfriend Herman, gives a measured performance with a deliberate southern drawl and a calculated response to Julia’s unhappiness with him for not confronting his mother and sister about their relationship. Cummings, conveys through body language and posture that he loves her unconditionally. He cannot comprehend why his inability to discuss the oppression and bigotry from his family is a breaking point for Julia. Cummings is an actor that can say as much with physical acting as he does with scripted words. He gives a sensational performance.  

Kari Ely (Herman’s Mother) and Ellie Schwetye (Annabelle) bravely step into the most unsympathetic and unforgiving characters in the play. Ely’s fearless turn as Herman’s hatred spewing, racist mother creates the most unlikeable character. Her scenery chewing confrontation is monumental and matched by Jacqueline Thompson’s response to her. Schwetye’s character burns with more reserved bigotry. While her prejudices are present, she keeps them below the surface of an icy exterior. She is less outspoken than her mother but still expresses her disdain for Julia and Herman’s relationship. Her cold-blooded communication with Julia also makes her unlikeable but she’s not as overtly hostile as Herman’s Mother.  

The rest of the cast turn in stellar performances as well. Christian Kitchens gives Lula’s son Nelson real charm. There’s no doubt from Kitchen’s portrayal of Nelson that his character is a proud man who appreciates attention from women. Isaiah Di Lorenzo plays Bell Man with all the greasy schmarm you’d expect from a door-to-door salesman. His towering height and unforgettable stage presence makes it impossible not to regard him when he makes his entrance. Finally, the young actors, Vivian Helena Himes, and Lucy Miller, hold their own among this stellar group of adult actors. Of note, Himes is darling when she shows gratitude to an adult for their kindness. She also captures a child’s fear of when a parent is aggressively disciplining the child. Her work with Yancy is terrific, and Yancy shows great finesse for working with young actors. 

Chris Cumberbatch’s set design gives Director Geovonday Jones the perfect workspace for telling this story. The entire play is set in the backyard of Fanny’s property where the entrances are to the living spaces for her three tenants. The set includes the exterior of Mattie, Julia, and Lula’s home, with the interior of Julia’s bedroom sandwiched between the exterior of Julia and Lula’s doors. The backdrop is a projection of a stunning landscape with sky and clouds that is changed to represent time of day. Andre Harrington’s costume designs expertly capture the clothing of 1918 and the differences between race and socio-economic status.

 Review: WEDDING BAND at The Catherine B. Berges Theatre At COCA  

Jones collaborates with his cast and crew to mount an artful production of Alice Childress’ important story. He captures the grievous nature of oppressive racism and the fears of mixed-race couples in doomed relationships. This outstanding production of Wedding Band is being presented by The Black Rep at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre through March 31st. Tickets can be purchased by clicking the link below.

PHOTO CREDIT: Keshon Campbell