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The Boundaries of Kinship

Sam Huber
In her plays, Alice Childress revealed how vulnerable even the most private, self-enclosed spaces are to history’s incursions.

Hollis King/TFANA

Brittany Bradford as Julia Augustine and Thomas Sadoski as Herman in Theatre for a New Audience's production of Alice Childress's Wedding Band

From the opening lines of Wedding Band, her 1966 play about an interracial relationship in World War I–era South Carolina, Alice Childress keeps her keen eye trained on life’s essentials: money, food, human connection. Mattie trails her daughter Teeta around the stage in search of a lost quarter. In her anger, the mother explains the chain of responsibility broken by this loss. Her husband October is off serving in the merchant marine, leaving Mattie to provide for herself and her child by selling candies. Teeta had been tasked with buying the ingredients with which Mattie makes their living. The child’s abdication of her duty begets new tasks, new obligations: their landlady Fanny and neighbor Lula, drawn in by the conflict, join their search.

Mattie and Teeta both are and are not the protagonists of Wedding Band. That title better fits the newest tenant to join their shared backyard, Julia Augustine, whose decade-long marriage—in her eyes, if not her neighbors’ or the law’s—to Herman, a white man, propels the plot. But Childress’s truer subject is the community within which Julia finds herself enmeshed. The activity of the yard rarely slackens, its residents and guests weaving their private dramas into one another’s. The boundaries of kinship are both rabidly defended and maddeningly porous; over and over, the play’s characters try and fail to assert some control over who they’re accountable to. In the first scene, Mattie’s search party soon picks up Julia, too. When the quarter is discovered just out of reach beneath her porch, Julia offers Mattie a new one. She intends the gesture to disperse the group and restore her privacy, but she instead achieves the opposite. The small debt inaugurates a claim in both directions.

The alternating warmth and claustrophobia of Wedding Band’s tightly braided cast is well served by the intimate Polonsky Shakespeare Center, where Theatre for a New Audience has mounted the show’s first New York production in fifty years. The set (designed by Jason Ardizzone-West) cuts like an aisle through the middle of the theater, splitting the audience in two. Over the course of the play’s two and a half hours, I became familiar with the theatergoers opposite my seat, or at least I imagined I did. In particularly tense or funny moments, I’d automatically turn from the stage to study their faces, drawing lines of affinity based on how much or how little their reactions seemed to match my own—just as Childress’s characters study each other throughout her plays.

Julia (Brittany Bradford) tells the gossipy and self-important Fanny (Elizabeth Van Dyke) that she’s moved to the yard in search of quiet: “I’m not much of a mixer.” She initially resists her neighbors’ impositions, guarding the privacy on which her life with Herman (Thomas Sadoski) depends. Their union is illegal; the fact that they’ve sustained it for ten years implies many plays’ worth of trials before this one. But hiding inflicts its own kinds of hurt. Mattie (Brittany-Laurelle) and Lula (Rosalyn Coleman) don’t have to press very hard to draw out Julia’s secret, which she divulges much sooner and more eagerly than she or we might have expected. “Oh, the things I can tell you ’bout bein’ lonesome and shut-out,” she reflects enticingly, as her neighbors threaten to withdraw from the danger that attends her confession; “Always movin’, one place to another, lookin’ for some peace of mind.”

These friendships are well in motion before we meet Herman. By the time he wanders on stage in scene 2, Julia’s fantasy of privacy has already been punctured. Herman will cling to his much more tightly, and the couple’s respective assessments of their love’s borders diverge ever further as the play develops. “Close the door, lock out the world,” Herman implores Julia, amid a litany of complaints about his racist, status-obsessed mother—“a poor ignorant woman,” he calls her, “who is mad because she was born a sharecropper.”

Between Ardizzone-West’s scenic design and Awoye Timpo’s direction, the TFANA production seems to lend more credence to Herman’s cloistered vision than did Childress, at least in the play’s first half. The playwright’s original set description places Julia’s house center stage, flanked by Lula’s and Mattie’s; the action of the yard literally surrounds and envelops her. At TFANA, Julia’s bed and furnishings instead occupy one end of the traverse stage, creating a zone of relative seclusion. Bradford and Sadoski are both charismatic and varied performers, and the tenderness, deliberation, and ease of their first scenes together offer a palpable reprieve from the higher pitch and faster pace of the ensemble.

In his insistent appeal for refuge from the hatred that’s hemmed them in, Herman denies race’s structuring presence within his own marriage. He bristles when Julia refers to “white-folks”—“People, Julia, people”—but her color informs his attraction to her. When Herman suddenly falls ill with the flu, he feverishly calls for “my little brown girl,” dreaming of “the night-time, the warm, Carolina night-time in my arms…”

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His illness brings the outside world crashing violently in. Fearing that the spectacle of a white man “layin’ up in a black woman’s bed” might prompt a doctor to call the police, Fanny instead summons Herman’s mother (Veanne Cox) and sister Annabelle (Rebecca Haden) to remove him from her property. The play’s networks of care and kin grow more tangled and more fraught. Annabelle is skittish, uncertain, and resentful of her brother’s apparent freedom. After ushering Julia out of her own room, Annabelle begs Herman to marry a white woman who could assume responsibility for their household and release Annabelle to pursue her own unseemly romance with a sailor. Herman’s mother makes even less of an effort to repress her animosity. Cox’s performance is brilliantly stilted, lording her discomfort over everyone around her in tones both robotic and oracular. Childress subtitled her play “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White,” and Julia’s scenes with Herman’s mother prove that ugly feelings can occasion intimacies as consuming and defining as nobler ones.  

*

Wedding Band is this season’s second major Childress revival, arriving on the heels of Roundabout Theater Company’s winter production of Trouble in Mind (1955). I hope the renaissance continues; there’s plenty of material to keep it going. Childress’s relative obscurity belies a long and prolific career. (That obscurity is only relative. While she may still be largely unknown to New York audiences, Childress has become a crucial figure in recent scholarship on the midcentury Black left.) Beginning in the 1930s until her death in 1994, Childress helped deconstruct and rebuild American theater from every angle: as a member of the Harlem-based, cooperatively run American Negro Theatre; then as a playwright and director; and consistently as a journalist and interpreter of both her own work and the culture at large. In a forum on “The Negro Woman in American Literature,” published in the journal Freedomways the year that Wedding Band premiered, she begins her remarks by describing the void into which so much of her work issued:

I agree that the Negro woman has almost been omitted as important subject matter in the general popular American drama, television, motion pictures and radio; except for the constant, but empty and decharacterized faithful servant. And her finest virtues have been drawn in terms of long suffering, with humility and patience.

If Julia’s fidelity to Herman brings these last tropes to mind, Childress invokes them in act 1 only to shatter them in act 2. In The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s, the scholar Mary Helen Washington describes how Wedding Band seemed to some early viewers “to have appeared at the wrong historical moment,” centering interracial love just as many Black radicals had become disenchanted with integration and begun to work in more strident, separatist modes. But as Washington argues, the play’s initial critics were objecting to its premise more than its substance. The stressors that beset Julia and Herman’s marriage are intractable, and the play does not defuse them.

Henry Grossman/TFANA

Brittany Bradford as Julia Augustine and Thomas Sadoski as Herman in Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Alice Childress’s Wedding Band

When the taut hostility between Julia and Herman’s mother snapped into profane confrontation, some of my fellow audience members clearly found the blowup cathartic, cheering Julia on as though she had finally tapped some righteous store of power. The scene struck me instead as deeply unsettling, almost surreal in its horror. Childress knows that Julia’s indignation can’t and won’t prevail over the racist edifice in which she lives.

Julia suspects this, too. The next day, as Lula’s son Nelson (Renrick Palmer) prepares for another deployment in the war churning offstage, his mother asks Julia to “Tell him how life’s gon’ be better when he gets back.” Julia obliges, painting a beautiful picture of what she, Childress, and the audience all know won’t come to pass: “Soon, Nelson, in a little while … we’ll have whatsoever our hearts desire. You’re comin’ back in glory … with honors and shining medals …” (Timpo and her actors are sensitive interpreters of Childress’s many ellipses, which here dampen but elsewhere intensify her dialogue.) Nelson is both moved and wary, asking, “Can you look me dead in the eye and say you believe all-a that?” Julia gracefully deflects. Black servicemen would instead return in 1919 to a national wave of white terrorism.

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This doesn’t mean that Julia and her neighbors’ self-assertions are futile. Throughout her work, Childress weighed the simultaneous insufficiency and necessity of such minor bids for dignity. In Trouble in Mind, set behind the scenes of a Broadway show, a Black actress refuses to perform a racist part as written, though she expects to be fired for her intransigence. The protagonist of Florence (1949), Childress’s first one-act, rebuffs a white woman’s offer to find domestic employment for her daughter, though the would-be patron never quite understands the insult she’s committed.

Each play, like Wedding Band, unfolds entirely within a single delimited environment: a rehearsal stage, a segregated train station, Fanny’s yard. Childress may initially have been drawn to confined scenes as a creative response to constraint—her earliest productions with American Negro Theatre and the Committee for the Negro in the Arts were mounted in small venues on tight budgets. But these settings also allow the playwright to explore the tense familiarities engendered by American racism and reveal how vulnerable even the most private, self-enclosed spaces are to history’s incursions. Such rooms may contain the whole varied action that occupies a life, but they can’t shelter that life from the world looming just offstage. Wedding Band is tragic because Julia comes to appreciate this fact, while Herman can’t permit himself to.

Julia’s hard-earned self-awareness is shared by all of Childress’s most memorable characters. “I write about the intellectual poor,” she told an interviewer in 1972. “People who are thoughtful about their condition, people who are limited in many ways, that have been cut off from having all that they want and desire, and know that this has happened to them.” In Wedding Band, this reflexive bent conspires with and amplifies the drama of confession and discretion, curiosity and propriety, that swirls around Julia and Herman. Childress’s best dialogue pivots dizzyingly between presumptions, implications, and subtly veiled meanings that are alternately gleaned, missed, and imagined where they haven’t been intended. (On the page, this nimble social choreography always leads me to read Childress at a brisk clip; TFANA’s production sometimes feels ponderous by contrast, with actors lingering over their best lines as if in fear that the audience might miss their profundity.) A Childress character tends to know more than she lets on, because she understands the risks involved in making certain things known. She’s often smart enough to play dumb, performing ignorance strategically. “We’re just poor, humble, colored people,” Fanny tells Herman’s mother, “and everybody knows how to keep their mouth shut.” Through verbal tics like “I know,” “you don’t understand,” and “you see,” Childress’s speakers feel out who’s together on the inside of an experience and who’s on the outside, experiencing something else. When Herman pleads innocent of the crimes of past slave owners, Julia shouts him down: “The rich and the poor…we know you…all of you…Who you are…where you came from…where you goin’…”

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