Who’s Alice Childress? We should all know | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Who’s Alice Childress? We should all know

The civil rights-era playwright’s Wedding Band is an indispensable look at what we’ve been missing.

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Raise your hand if you're familiar with the work of Alice Childress. I thought not. Me neither. Sure, it's easy enough to ID her as one of a constellation of black playwrights who flourished in New York during the civil rights era. But until I checked I'd have had a hard time telling you what exactly it was that she wrote. Childress's ten plays died before her own death, in 1994. The Reader's online archives record only three Chicago productions in 28 years.

So praise the Lord, as one of its characters would certainly say, for the Artistic Home revival of Childress's Wedding Band, which offers an indispensable look at what we've been missing.

Written in 1962 but unseen onstage until 1966 because, the story goes, Broadway theaters were afraid to touch it (the premiere finally took place at the University of Michigan), Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White is set during the summer of 1918 in South Carolina. The United States is throwing troops into World War I and Jim Crow confines urban blacks to dirt-poor ghettos. Julia Augustine has just rented a room in one such ghetto located in a "city by the sea"—presumably Charleston, where Childress spent part of her childhood. Julia tries to keep to herself, but that's impossible given the close quarters, not to mention the keen interest of her landlady and neighbors. Soon enough it comes out that she's spent the last decade in a loving relationship with Herman. Who's white.

Shit can't help but hit the fan, and it does so at high velocity when Herman comes down with influenza during a visit to Julia's room. He can't be moved, yet a doctor can't be called because Herman's very presence is illegal. Though his sister and mother are summoned, the former is stunted and the latter a vicious racist. The tensions set loose by this situation lead not only to brutal exchanges, but to a series of the most nakedly savage, laceratingly honest speeches about America's racial psychosis that I've heard uttered on a stage.

Cecilie Keenan's staging has its drawbacks. Attempting to bring a sense of realism to a small space, Kevin Rolfs's set ends up creating confusion over how and where everybody lives. More important, Raina Lynn's Julia is awkward and artificial in the early going. Still, she more than compensates when it comes time to explode. And she gets powerful support from Susan Anderson's comic/tragic landlady as well as Lisa McConnell, Myesha-Tiara, and Kevin Patterson as vividly sketched neighbors. Donna McGough and Reid Coker are as horrific as they need to be as Herman's mother and a despicably Harvey Weinsteinesque salesman. Scott Westerman's Herman is stunning in his absolute everydayness.  v

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