Alice Childress Classic at Penumbra is Third in This Fall’s Triple Crown of Great American Revivals
Autumn of 2017 has been a magical time in the Twin Cities for marvelous revivals of classic American plays.
As reviewed earlier, Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer at Theatre in the Round and Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine at the Guthrie, were breathtaking. Moreover, there is yet another great American play production still in full swing. Alice Childress’s Wedding Band runs in a richly textured, powerhouse revival at Penumbra, the nation’s foremost African-American theater. It has been directed by the company founder Lou Bellamy with the signature brilliance he always brings to classic African-American plays. There are few directors who one can say “always” regarding their excellence, but Bellamy is one of the few.
Childress scrupulously examines the plight of those who defied the legal and social injunction against interracial love a century ago. Though Childress was a black playwright, she vividly understands specific pressures thrust upon common white men who fell short of the success standards expected of them. She is sympathetic and probing on that count. As for her black female protagonist, she channels the rage against the racist values that white-controlled society compels her to with psychic fists of fury.
The 1962 drama, set in Charleston, involves the influenza pandemic, World War I, and the effects of the illegality of interracial marriage. Dame-Jasmine Hughes and Peter Christian Hansen movingly portray an African-American woman and a white man of German descent who have nurtured a primary romantic relationship in the shadows for several years. When Herman ends up on her doorstep with the deadly flu, the black Charleston neighborhood responds in various ways.
Worse still, Herman’s sister, Annabelle (Jen Maren), and mother (a perfectly and appropriately monstrous Laura Esping) throw emotional acid onto the couple’s desperation. Maren is magnetically watchable as Annabelle comes into awareness of how rabidly grotesque her mother’s racist defensiveness actually is. The mother’s racism serves as a compensation mechanism for her instability over being descended from the nation that US troops are fighting “over there”.
Wedding Band ‘s black characters reveal a diversity of thought among themselves. Austene Van brings warmth and grace to Lula, the emotional spine of the neighborhood. Ivory Doublette delights and endears as the nurturing salt of the earth Mattie. Dynamic Darius Dotch is in top form as Nelson, a mercurial man who exemplifies how black soldiers were regarded at the time.
Those who know Wedding Band will recall its many references to “the race” by property owner busybody, Fanny Johnson. She is fixated on her fellow African-Americans being constantly on guard against not looking like an ideal citizen. George Keller is maddeningly wonderful in the role. Better yet, it is also unlike any performance you’ve probably ever seen this first rate actress ever deliver. We chuckle throughout as we note that few are ever quite up to Fanny’s tyrannical perfectionism.
Through Nov. 12
Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul