Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Stunning Show Wedding Band Tells the Whole Truth About Interracial Relationships

"Ain't too many people in this world get to be loved - really loved."

Photo by Allen Weeks

These graceful words sum up the heartbreaking finale to Wedding Band, a powerful show now running at the Penumbra. I want to state up front that this show was very personal to me, and I can't possibly leave that out of my thoughts. I have included more of myself in this review than usual, and I hope that's okay. 

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is, in an oversimplified summary, about the struggles of interracial lovers in North Carolina in 1918. Julie and Herman have been a couple for 10 years, and they are still very much in love - but boy if it isn't difficult. Interracial marriage is still illegal in the American South, and no one on either "side" of the racial divide is pleased about their relationship.

Photo by Allen Weeks

A more accurate description of this beautiful script from Alice Childress, but harder to pinpoint neatly, is that Wedding Band's real moral lies in how it so pointedly captures the nefarious, myriad ways that this country's horrific racial history works to poison interracial relationships at every step. Our protagonists Julie and Herman love each other, true: but love is not enough. Love is not enough to afford tickets to a place where Julia and Herman can legally marry and be together. Love is not enough to protect Julia from gossip in her community and physical threats from other white men who view her as an available dalliance. Love is not enough to make Julia into a member of Herman's family, who are totally unable to accept her despite their own outcast status as Germans during a World War. Love is not enough to allow Julia to call a doctor or care for Herman when he becomes ill, a sickness from which he later dies - because the scandal his sleeping in a black woman's bed might incur is more important to his family and community than saving his life.

Photo by Allen Weeks

This not-enough-ness is what is so hard about interracial relationships and so hard to explain to those outside of one, even today. I am blessed to be half of a beautiful, strong, intimate interracial relationship. It is the pride of my life that my partner and I have found each other. We are great communicators, and luckily we don't face many of the challenges Julia and Herman do in Wedding Band. Our partnership is challenging and bracing and inspiring and so very worthwhile. But moments of this play struck me deeply with their relevance, even though we exist 100 years after this play takes place. Anyone in a committed partnership knows how much work it takes to understand each other and maintain a healthy common ground; imagine fighting for your relationship in tandem with hundreds of years of racial oppression and baggage at the same time.

Photo by Allen Weeks

So much has changed for the better since the time in which Wedding Band is set; 50 years ago the Loving vs. Virginia case made it crystal clear that interracial marriage was legal nationwide; the Civil Rights movement passed the Voting Rights Act and many other important pieces of legislation; the South was theoretically desegregated. But changing laws is not the same thing as changing hearts and minds, and that is the tragedy that confronts interracial couples to this day. I am legally allowed to marry my partner - for which I am extremely grateful - but I have still walked down the street with him and faced threats, been spit on, and been angrily confronted - yes, even here in "liberal" Minneapolis. We still have to carefully code where we live to make sure neighbors will not view one of us a threat. We still have to consider whose name to put on joint accounts and purchases, knowing that if it is mine it will likely receive better fees and interest rates. We have to face the possibility that if we should one day have children, they will be thoroughly planted in two completely different worlds, and that their "otherness" could make them a target of harassment.

Photo by Allen Weeks

It's such a shame that any of those things need to be true here, but they are. And it won't get better until we look these problems straight in the face and say yes, I see you; yes, we will fix this; yes, we will all do better. The denouement of Wedding Band falls when Julia is ready to leave Herman after 10 years of dedication, because the rest of it, of life outside of their locked bedroom door, is just too much. She can't talk about lynchings with him; she can't talk about her loneliness. It is so difficult just to see each other that their time cannot be used for anything other than loving each other, and while that is beautiful, it can't make up for the rest of the horrors Julia ceaselessly confronts as a black woman living in the American South in 1918.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Julia and Herman discuss these problems frankly, and although extremely painful it's the most authentic delineation of an interracial relationship that I've ever seen on stage. These are harsh, vicious, honest words, but they are the only words that could get Julia and Herman through. We like to think today that as a society that we are in some sort of post-racial utopia, that the end of slavery or the end of Jim Crow was enough to make race an arbitrary thing. We like to think that people who bring up race are just making a mountain out of a molehill, but if Charlottesville has taught us anything it's that we are never "over" America's racial sins. Until those sins are cleaned, until we take full ownership and apology and repentance for them, the rest of us will continue to flounder in the mire left in its wake. Julia and Herman cannot be just man and wife; they have to be a white poor man and an orphaned black woman in the American South, and those identities can never leave them despite how many doors they try to shut to lock them out.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Dame-Jasmine Hughes stars as Julia, and she's a revelation. Hughes savors her lines like chocolate cake, slowly wending them out; it's a pleasure to see an actress who has such grace and poise, and she lends a Gabrielle Union quality to her role. Hughes has a cadre of equally delightful actresses to tell the story with her. Ivory Doublette is charming and heartwarming as Mattie, bringing a shining warmth to the stage in her Penumbra debut. Austene Van is sincere and welcoming as Lula, and it's a pleasure to watch her mentorship over these fine young actresses. George Keller is the woman you love to hate as Julia's landlord Fanny, and her vibrant acting plunges the audience into a complex, difficult, rich narrative of the legacy that racism left to many people of color in the form of rigged property ownership, colorism and prejudice. Laura Esping is absolutely chilling as Herman's mother, and spits her dialogue with unmatched venom. It's a hard part, especially if you don't identify with the material, and Esping really knows how to hone her lines. Peter Christian Hansen is appropriately loving as Herman. Darius Dotch crackles on stage as Lula's son Nelson, and delivers several powerful lines about the place of black men (and particularly black soldiers) in U.S. society. Bob Beverage is horrifyingly familiar as the abusive Bell Man, demonstrating an invasion of privacy that is as chilling as it is unfortunately commonplace.

Photo by Allen Weeks

The set, designed by Vicki Smith, is relatively low-key. One half details the inside of Julia's bedroom; the other, Lula's front porch. The economy is comforting, and you never feel displaced or confused as to the place in the action. Every prop, considerately selected by Amy Reddy, feels well worn and well used, and it's clear that the cast is at home in their surroundings. The costumes are deceptively simple as designed by Mathew LeFebvre, and I really enjoyed the thoughtful details he placed on each. They're beautifully evocative of the early 1900s and well-suited to the character's various professions. Mike Wangen's lighting gently takes us through the time cycles of each day, and Lou Bellamy's masterful overall direction infuses this tautly drawn drama with dynamic gravitas.

Photo by Allen Weeks

Wedding Band is a raw, gorgeously told story that is vital to understanding interracial relationships and the devastating heritage of America's racial sins. If you want to understand how we got here (and how we can fix it); if you need a look in the mirror to see your own flaws and tribulations; if you simply want to see a show with powerful, nuanced performances and gripping dialogue; then you must attend Wedding Band. It runs at the Penumbra through November 12; I highly recommend it for any audience. You may not want to see it, but you should see it, and that alone makes it worth the trip. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.