(Michael Schulman’s article appeared in the New Yorkers, 5/2; Illustration: The New Yorker.)
How a dramaturge and a director resurrected Alice Childress’s play “Wedding Band,” about a Black seamstress in love with a white baker in 1918 Charleston, which will return to New York for the first time in a half century.
The playwright Alice Childress, who lived from 1916 to 1994, never saw her work produced on Broadway. Unlike some of her Black contemporaries—Lorraine Hansberry, August Wilson—she wasn’t canonized or widely taught. In her later years, “she felt like she had been forgotten,” the dramaturge Arminda Thomas said the other day. Lately, though, Childress has been remembered. This past winter, her 1955 play, “Trouble in Mind,” about an actress navigating backstage racism, made its long-awaited Broadway début. And, this month, Theatre for a New Audience is staging her drama “Wedding Band” at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, in Brooklyn, its first New York production in half a century.
“Wedding Band” (subtitle: “A Love/Hate Story in Black and White”) is set in 1918, under the cloud of war and a pandemic, in Charleston, South Carolina, where Childress was born. Its heroine, Julia, is a Black seamstress in love with a white baker named Herman, a situation that her neighbors and the law disapprove of. Childress was raised by her grandmother, who once told her about an interracial couple who had scandalized her neighbors. “That sparked her imagination,” Thomas said. Thomas was sitting next to Awoye Timpo, the revival’s director, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem, where Childress’s papers are kept. Thomas had suggested reviving “Wedding Band” to Timpo, and last fall the two began visiting the Schomburg to pore over drafts. “I feel like we actually have been in a very intense dialogue with Alice Childress,” Timpo said. They visited Charleston and found locations mentioned in the play—Roper Hospital, Queen Street—as well as the address where Childress lived with her grandmother. “Their place was 35 Line Street,” Thomas said. “There was a 33 and a 37—and there was a big hole.”