It is appropriate that Eastern Michigan University (EMU) is currently staging Alice Childress’s Wedding Band because the play first appeared in 1966 only about five miles away on the campus of the University of Michigan. The current production is directed by Wallace Bridges, a professor at EMU. The university’s theater program is an excellent one, and some of its actors have gone on to successful acting careers. Dann Florek, who plays Captain Cragen on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, is just one example. On this past Saturday night when my wife, Nancy, and I saw Wedding Band the eleven actors (eight females and three males) delivered admirable performances. Especially notable were Amanda Brewer as Julia Augustine (who was earlier played by the distinguished Ruby Dee in a 1972 staging in New York) and Courtney Smith as Fanny Johnson.
Writer, actress, director Childress (1916-1994) is perhaps best known as the author of the best-selling novel A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich. But her talents were multiple and substantial. Although the play is almost a half-century old and is set a half-century before that (1918), it is still paradoxically timely and timeless. It is so because it deals with a couple’s love for each other and impediments to marriage in the face of outside pressures—think of gay couples in most states today trying to marry or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The place is “a city by the sea” in South Carolina—reminiscent of the Charleston area, where in 1916 Childress was born. It is the summer of 1918, and a son (Nelson) of one of Julia’s neighbor’s (Lula) is home on leave from the army. Another neighbor, Mattie, has a man (October) she considers her husband (but the state does not) away in the Merchant Marine.
The African-American Julia’s lover (for a decade) is Herman, a German-American baker whom she cannot marry in South Carolina because of its anti-miscegenation laws. (Although a 1967 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional, South Carolina did not officially remove its unenforceable prohibition on such mixed race marriages until 1998). As a result of the social and governmental disapproval of her love for a white man, Julia has often moved from one neighborhood to another, and at the beginning of the play she has just become a new tenant of Fanny, who lives in a separate house and is described in the play’s script as a “self-appointed, fifty-year-old representative of her race.” Neither Fanny nor Julia’s two other black female neighbors, Lula and Mattie, approve of her relationship with the white Herman. Nor do Herman’s mother and sister like his dealings with the black Julia.
While there is much in the play that could be discussed (and even more about its reception in the 1960s and 1970s), we’ll consider just a few highlights here.
First, of course, is the obvious racism directed against blacks that existed in 1918. It is most blatantly displayed by the anti-miscegenation and certain other laws of the time and by Herman’s mother. They coincide when she tells him, “Follow the law—law, law of the land. Obey the law!” She tells Julia about Herman as a child: “When he wasn't but five years old I had to whip him so he'd study his [Senator, SC] John C. Calhoun speech. Calhoun knew ‘bout niggers. ‘He said, MEN are not born…equal, or any other kinda way… MEN are made. . .’” Later Herman in a sickly daze—he contracts influenza, an epidemic that in 1918 killed far more people than all WWI killing—repeats part of the speech: “Men are not born. Infants are born. They grow to be men. . . they grow to all the freedom, of which the condition in which they were born permits. It is a great and dangerous error to suppose that all people are equally entitled to liberty . . . It is a reward to be earned, a reward reserved for the intelligent, the patriotic, the virtuous and deserving; and not a boon to be bestowed on a people too ignorant, degraded and vicious . . . to be capable either of appreciating or of enjoying it.” (See here for Calhoun’s original words).
The mother also calls Julia a: “black, sassy nigger” and “nigger whore.” (In a response that reminded me of an old Saturday Night Live segment with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, Julia responds with “Kraut, knuckle-eater, red-neck”. . . “white trash! . . . and sharecropper bitch.”) Although the racial stereotypes are obviously not limited to those directed against blacks—the play also mentions some aimed during the war at Herman’s German-American family—the anti-black prejudices are by far the most damaging. In another scene, a travelling white salesman (the Bell Man) tells the soldier Nelson: “Don't letcha uniform go to your head, boy, or you'll end your days swingin' from a tree.” (Between 1882 and 1903 almost 2,000 black southerners were lynched by white mobs, and lynchings continued to occur thereafter, as, e.g., an infamous case in Waco, Texasin 1916.)
But Julia is hopeful that the wartime service of Nelson and other African-Americans, in the name of making the “world safe for democracy,” will help end segregation in the south, where the overwhelming percentage of U. S. black people then lived. “Soon, Nelson, in a little while . . . we'll have whatsoever our hearts desire. You're comin' back in glory . . . with honors and shining medals . . . And those medals and that uniform is gonna open doors for you . . . and for October . . . for all, all of the servicemen . . . They’re gonna take down the no-colored signs. ”
Writing in the early 1960s Childress realized, of course, that Julia’s hope was to remain unrealized for many decades. Segregated schools, churches, housing, restaurants, bars, hospitals, barber shops, public transportation and restrooms remained until a Supreme Court decision of 1954 ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional and Rosa Parks, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others in the 1950s and 1960s successfully struggled to dismantle some of the most egregious forms of segregation.
Across the racial divide, the love of Julia and Herman remains, but racial differences even intrude and impede their own relationship. Here is one of their exchanges:
Julia: “All-a my people that's been killed . . . It's your people that killed 'em . . . all that's been in bondage—your people put 'em there—all that didn't go to school—your people kept ‘em out.”
Herman: “But I didn't do it. Did I do it?”
Julia: “They killed ‘em. All the dead slaves . . .”
Herman: “And you blamin' me for it . . .”
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She complains that whenever she mentions any victimization of blacks, he responds, “Kerist, there it is again.”
But immediately after this exchange, the signs of their love return. He faults himself for not doing more for her, and she remembers many of his kindnesses.
Earlier on, he had started singing (there is just a little singing in the play), and she had joined him in a brief duet: “I love you as I never loved before. . . when first I met you on the village green . . . Come to me e'er my dream of love is o’er . . .” The song is a nice touch, and it helps us feel their mutal love.
Toward the end of the play, they plan to take a boat to the North, where they can legally marry. But Herman’s influenza makes it problematic whether or not this hope will ever be realized—but I’ll not give away the ending.
In the audience at the play the night we watched it were far more African-Americans, young and old, than at most EMU plays, and I couldn’t help wonder how each of them viewed it, especially some of the oldest who may have personally suffered under southern segregation. The laughter at certain lines—Fanny’s highfaluting ways occasioned some of it—also indicated some differing audience responses.
One’s perception of films like The Help and Lincoln is affected by whether one is white or black, as Sharon Kyle, among others, has reminded us on this blog.
When talking about race — or specifically about racism — it’s difficult to bridge the gap in understanding that exists between whites and blacks. It’s not impossible but all too often our vastly different experiences lead us to draw conclusions that are hard to reconcile and even harder to dismantle.
It’s been my experience that trying to bridge this gulf frequently leads to a type of dialog that I can only characterize as “talking past each other.”
She was led to this reflection by her differences with a man she had once dated about Thomas Jefferson. As she explained it:
As you might have guessed, the man I broke up with is white. I am black. I listened that evening as he extolled the life’s work of Jefferson and the other founding fathers–his adulation barely containable. I’d always found it curious when people who have actually studied history continue to hold Jefferson in such high esteem. I asked how he could revere a man who well into adulthood and during his early career condemned slavery, took affirmative steps to end it–yet abruptly changed his tune and then over the remainder of his life held more than 650 humans captive, exploiting them for labor and sex–as in the well-documented case of Sally Hemings who he began having sex with when she was 14.
The Wedding Band indicated that even for a loving couple, the racial divide was difficult to overcome. For the rest of us, despite all our progress since the 1960s, it still remains even more so. But seeing and discussing such works as Wedding Band, Lincoln, and The Help can assist us. So too can practicing such old fashion virtues as openness, tolerance, empathy, and compassion.
Walter G. Moss
Monday, 8 April 2013