‘Wedding Band’ Off Broadway Review: The Theater Discovers Alice Childress, Again

The playwright’s follow-up to ‘Trouble in Mind’ receives a stellar revival

Wedding Band Brittany Bradford Thomas Sadoskias
"Wedding Band" at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, starring Brittany Bradford and Thomas Sadoskias (Photo by Hollis King)

Her “Trouble in Mind” was big news last season. Her “Wedding Band” is even bigger news this theater season. Eleven years separate the plays by the late Alice Childress; and, in between the two, she wrote a novel, “Like One of the Family,” but not another work for the stage. The hoopla surrounding the Roundabout’s production of “Trouble” was that Childress’ 1955 play about the rehearsal of a play got scuttled on its way from Off Broadway to Broadway. When producers asked the playwright to make changes to soften the work’s racial message, she refused. Hence, its Broadway debut was delayed until 2021.

The year 1955 is also when Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” opened on Broadway, and its director, Elia Kazan, insisted that the playwright soften its homosexual message by making the lead male character go straight in the play’s final moments. Williams complied, the play was a big success, and today, his original ending survives to be performed everywhere.

It’s open for debate whether Childress should have pulled a Williams with “Trouble” and agreed to changes in her play. Would she have had to wait 11 years to write another play?

“Wedding Band” opened Sunday at Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center under the auspices of Theatre for a New Audience, and it’s clear that Childress made the right decision not to change a word of her follow-up play. Back in 1966, New York producers wanted her story of an interracial love affair to focus more on the white male character. Childress refused, and “Wedding Band” did not receive its Gotham debut until 1972 at the Public Theater.

“Wedding Band” is a stronger, more accomplished play than “Trouble in Mind,” and one of its greatest assets is the vivid community of four African American women that Childress creates in the play’s opening scenes. Compare the nuanced writing here with the far broader strokes this playwright uses to assemble her theater ensemble in the first act of “Trouble.” In “Wedding Band,” the seamstress Julia (Brittany Bradford) has just moved into one of the properties owned by the righteous Fanny (Elizabeth Van Dyke sails on material that’s comic gold). Other tenants include the bitter Mattie (Brittany-Laurelle), who cares for her own daughter (Phoenix Noelle) as well as a little white girl (Sofie Nesanelis) and the big-hearted Lula (Rosalyn Coleman), whose son (Renrick Palmer) is about to go off to Europe to fight in the Great War during an influenza epidemic.

Julia is more than reticent around her new neighbors. Having paid her rent, she wants nothing to do with them, and her jockeying around their questions, taunts and own personal problems, which are vast, makes the air crackle with anticipation long before the other women get Julia to unload the big news about the man to whom she is not wed.

Childress takes her time as only a great writer can to introduce Julia’s white boyfriend. When the baker Herman (Thomas Sadoski) finally arrives, he brings with him a wedding cake to celebrate their 10th anniversary of not being married. There’s no doubt, however, that they’re a couple. It’s evident in the way they love, and it’s especially evident in the way they bicker.

Awoye Timpo directs this superb production of “Wedding Band, and perhaps it’s right that TFANA eschews the play’s original subhead of “A Love-Hate Story in Black and White.” It tells us too much right at the top. In Bradford’s carefully calibrated performance, Julia doesn’t really come alive until the arrival of Herman, who is a pair of loving arms as played by Sadoski. His wedding cake is a beautiful gesture, but it also exposes the fact that the two can’t marry unless they move north to Philadelphia or New York City. That kind of travel takes money, and like Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” Childress’ drama is an indictment of capitalism, among many other things.

Hellman’s Regina Hubbard Giddens meets her match in Childress’ equally avaricious character, known here only as Herman’s mother (Veanne Cox). While Regina is a woman surrounded by weak men, Herman’s mother must contend with another even stronger woman: Julia. The 2021-22 theater season was one loaded with many dramatic blowouts, especially of a racial nature. None matches in sheer prolonged ferocity what ensues between these two female characters, however. To call it a catfight radically underestimates the heat generated on stage. Childress has written a panther brawl that Bradford and Cox deliver with breathtaking power.

The only weakness here is in the performance of Rebecca Haden, playing Herman’s sister, Annabelle. The character is Mother Lite, and is supposed to prepare us for the explosion to come. Haden instead merely marks time until Cox shows up.

Bradford and Cox going at each other is a tough act to follow. Although far less laden with expletives and racial epithets – being German-American, Herman’s family has its own ethic problems in the year 1918 – Julia and Herman’s Act 2 reckoning is equally lacerating. Sadoski makes it clear he loves Julia, and Bradford makes it equally clear that Herman can never understand her.

Timpo directs a Cinemascope production for this simultaneously intimate and sprawling story. Jason Ardizzone-West’s set uses every inch of the theater and even a few we didn’t know about until he and Timpo reveal them to us in a thrilling conclusion.