Wedding Band, Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Congo Square Theatre Company. It’s a bit much for press materials to state that African-American playwright Alice Childress never made it to Broadway because “she wrote difficult plays and was unwilling to compromise.” How, then, to explain the Broadway success of her contemporary Lorraine Hansberry? If Wedding Band is any indication, Childress was a merely competent playwright.
Certainly the play, which premiered in 1972, is chock-full of meaty politics and vibrant characters. Set in South Carolina in 1918, it follows the semireclusive Julia Augustine, who’s taken a room under the watchful eye of a busybody landlady. Julia’s neighbors’ lives are open books–the women lament their every personal dilemma across the backyard–but she keeps to herself, afraid that if people discover that her paramour of ten years, Herman, is white they’ll shun her. When he shows up, then is quickly leveled by a case of the flu–trapped in a bedroom he can’t legally occupy–racial politics become a matter of life and death.
Despite an uneven cast, director Ron O.J. Parson creates a number of striking scenes and allows Julia’s harrowing showdown with Herman’s racist mother to reach the ugliest of heights. But Parson can’t overcome the sluggish excess of the script, which contains twice as much dialogue as drama. Though all the elements of a great play are here, Childress couldn’t shape them into anything that feels like life.