Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White

Alice Childress
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre
Lyric Hammersmith, London

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Deborah Ayorinde as Julia and David Walmsley as Herman Credit: Mark Senior
Lachele Carl as Fanny and Deborah Ayorinde as Julia Credit: Mark Senior
Saskia Holness as Teeta, Bethan Mary-James as Mattie and and Poppy Graham as Princess Credit: Mark Senior

An apartheid regime can distort the lives of all those who live there, whether it is by accident or choice that they break the rules. Alice Childress illustrates this by taking us back to 1918 in a play written in 1962 during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement.

The story centres on a group of black women living in rented property in a mainly white neighbourhood of South Carolina. It's a place where Julia (Deborah Ayorinde), a black woman, feels her ten-year relationship with white Herman (David Walmsley), an imprisonable offence in that state, might be less noticeable.

Physically, the set’s high metal fences surrounding each home act as a reminder of the forced “Jim Crow” nature of their lives. The landlady Fanny (Lachele Carl) worries about breaking those rules, being very conscious that she is “the first and only coloured they let buy land round here.” When she sees Herman enter Julia’s room, she describes him to others as “a light-coloured man”.

The first third of the play lightly introduces us to the different situations of the black women, such as Mattie (Bethan Mary-James) missing her husband serving on a battleship whose letters home are read to her by Julia and the spiritual Lula (Diveen Henry), who later in the show admits pleading with a white court to keep her son Nelson (Patrick Martins) from a chain gang that would likely kill him.

The arrival of Herman is met by astonishment from Mattie and Lula, who politely avoid commenting. The relaxed, affectionate relationship between Julia and Herman is believable and moving. We soon realise it has been stuck in a rut not only of secrecy to avoid arrest but also of frustrating personal boundaries, such as Herman’s unwillingness to talk about the historic white persecution of black people, which is quite an omission given at least one of his family was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Things become more disturbing when Herman falls ill with flu in Julia’s room, frightening Fanny who objects to Julia’s suggestion they get a doctor, saying, “it‘s against the damn law for him to be layin‘ up in a black woman‘s bed… Julia, it‘s hard to live under these mean white folks.”

As if to confirm that view, the outraged mother of Herman argues it's better he die than be revealed with the black woman.

Despite the unsettling nature of the second half, the play finds ways of reminding us that things can be different. With perhaps a nod to the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s, Julia gives a farewell speech on behalf of the women to Nelson who has been allowed under federal law to join the armed forces on the same terms as whites, saying, “those medals and that uniform is gonna open doors for you… Nelson, on account-a you we‘re gonna be able to go to the park. They‘re gonna take down the coloured signs.”

This well-performed piece from a strong cast told from the female point of view casts an important light on the cruel destructiveness of a terrible period in American history, one that America may now be helping to replicate in the Middle East.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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