Wedding Band: A Love Hate Story in Black and White review – high-stakes passion in the segregated south – The Guardian

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‘It’s wrong to hate, they say. It’s wrong to love, too.” So says Julia, a Black American woman who falls in love with a white man, Herman, when it is dangerous to do so. Alice Childress’s play is set in 1918 and was written in 1962 , but it was some years before a theatre dared to stage it amid the civil rights struggle

Julia (Deborah Ayorinde) and Herman (David Walmsley) live in segregated South Carolina where interracial relationships are illegal. The play opens on an anniversary when a wedding band is presented as a promise – a hope – of one day living as man and wife.

Ayorinde and Walmsley capture the couple’s lived-in ardour and something of their unspoken shame. Though the drama’s nucleus is this love story, which collects dread after Herman catches the Spanish flu and is incapacitated in Julia’s bed, the women in Julia’s Black neighbourhood are given centrality, too.

They represent a social cross-section: Fanny (Lachele Carl) is Julia’s upwardly mobile landlady; her neighbour Lula (Diveen Henry) is in debt, with a son about to go war; Mattie (Bethan Mary-James) is an illiterate mother who must count every nickel.

We learn about Herman’s mother and her dismay over his relationship before we see her, and we are also told that his dead father was once in thrall to “the Klan”. Meanwhile, the Black community are judgmental of Julia at a time when the horrors of American slavery remained fresh, within lived experience.

This could have made for a stark drama, but under the direction of Monique Touko (who recently brought School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play to this stage) it radiates warmth and humour alongside the dread. The south fulminates with dangerous nationalism and angry flag-waving so that you feel the women’s vulnerabilities.

The characters are exuberantly drawn and the supportive female circle around Julia remains as the plot turns darker in the second act, when the play inches from realism to an expressionistic stripping down.

There is a sultry quality to the staging that captures the sweaty heat of this backwater but a sensuousness too. Paul Wills’ set is beautiful, designed as a row of houses made from grilled doors, which suggests the landscape of the deep south but equally implies a prison-like environment which leaves characters exposed.

The action threatens to veer into melodrama when Herman’s family turns up – they could be angry Tennessee Williams characters – but reins itself in. Childress was an activist but lessons are not preached here. Racial politics is blended into the drama and its tragedy. This is an important, affecting revival that will no doubt introduce many to the power of Childress’s work.

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