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Theatre review Anti-racist drama misses the mark

PETER MASON questions whether the revival of a play about interracial love in the American south has the strength to speak to contemporary audiences

Wedding Band
Lyric Hammersmith, London

FULL marks to the Lyric Hammersmith for reviving this Alice Childress play about interracial love in the American south during the early part of the last century. This is its first major production in the UK since it was written in 1962, and it’s certainly worth an outing, especially given the theatre’s mission “to tell stories that matter.”
Tracking the fortunes of Julia, who is black, and Herman, a hard-pressed white baker from the same town in South Carolina, it shows how they desperately try to keep their 10-year relationship alive in the face of hostility from both sides of the racial divide.
Forbidden to marry under state law, the couple attempt to advance plans to move to the relative freedom of the north — but find that circumstances, family ties and monetary considerations keep delaying the big day.
The premise is an interesting one, and the players, including Deborah Ayorinde making an impressive stage debut in a demanding role as Julia, do it justice. The caged and fence-bound set by Paul Wills, reflecting the prison-like quality of the backyard tenement to which Julia has retreated, as well as the confines of their relationship, sets the tone very effectively.
Ultimately, though, it’s not a play of great strength. The enjoyable and intriguing first act does most of the heavy lifting, leaving nothing much to explore in the second part, which more or less fizzles out despite the drama of its ending.
Of course the content raises plenty of issues to consider on the racial front, as well as something about gender and class. But from a modern British perspective it doesn’t quite “speak to now” as director Monique Touko suggests it might do in her programme notes.
Perhaps the most interesting and relevant section comes near the end, when, as things begin to fall apart, Julia berates Herman and his forebears for their racial sins while Herman cries plaintively: “But I didn’t do that!”
It’s an argument that still runs today, and one that neatly sums up the dilemma of how much we should blame on the one hand and accept responsibility on the other — of how much we can ignore the past in case it taints the future, but simultaneously focus on it as a way of informing our behaviour going forward.
The fact that Wedding Band is not always directly applicable to the UK in the 21st century is hardly a fault of the play itself; after all it was written for a different audience in different times. It should be easy enough to take what’s needed from it, at this distance, while relishing a good tale that’s decorated with nice elements of comedy.
Unfortunately, though, Childress’s storytelling is not quite robust enough to sustain the interest to the very end. In contrast to the drama and suspense at the interval, there was a rather flat feeling at the final curtain.

Runs until June 29. Box Office: 020 8741 6850, 


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