By Sheri and Josh Flanders
Sheri and Josh are an interracial, married, Chicago-based comedy writing and performing duo and contributors to ChicagolandMusicalTheatre.com. The following conversation was spawned by attending The Artistic Home’s production, “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White.”
Sheri: This year has been a challenge for art and interracial couples. First the film Get Out, and now this.
Josh: Our relationship is stronger for it. I think we’re finally ready to watch Roots and Shoah together. Maybe not both in one weekend though.
Sheri: We’ll have to follow up 16 hours of persecution with something stupid like a Transformers movie or a lobotomy.
Josh: Same difference.
Sheri: Plays about persecution usually follow a stale, pandering narrative: A person who is “different” is attacked mercilessly by evil baddies. Somehow, despite insurmountable odds, they persevere, carrying themselves with a quiet dignity and grace. One might expect such a treacly story going into a play called Wedding Band, a Love Hate Story in Black and White. Fortunately, the dynamic script written by Alice Childress in 1966 follows no such predictable path. Despite being a celebrated, established playwright, she was unable to find companies willing to produce this piece. Hopefully, with the passage of time, this complex, thoughtful and funny play will claim a well-deserved spot in the cannon of American Theater Classics.
Josh: I agree! It would be fascinating to hear the whole story about how ABC filmed it but many affiliates refused to air it or buried it in a late-night slot. There’s a documentary there somewhere. This wonderful play is really a gem that has found its way back to the stage. Timing is everything, and the fact that this play, set in 1918, and premiered in 1966, can be as important and impactful in 2017 as it was 100 years ago really speaks volumes. Masking and unmasking of prejudice is cyclical and this play deserves its time in the spotlight.
Bravo to The Artistic Home for opening their season with play about African Americans during WWI which is inviting, surprising and much more interesting to watch than what I would have expected from the plays I’ve seen (namely, a white family from the same time period). This is a real heroine who does not carry herself with dignity but instead laments her need to fight for what little she can get, the respect that every human being deserves…a fight we are waging today, still.
Sheri: It is so important to see historical stories about African Americans that aren’t about the Civil War or Civil Rights. Often we are whitewashed out of period pieces, or play minor supporting characters like maids, with few lines and no backstory.
Stories about interracial couples can be stereotypical and corny. But this one is beautiful. The relationship between Julia (Raina Lynn) and Herman (Scott Westerman) is touching and real, due to the grounded, pitch-perfect performances of the actors. They have real chemistry that made touching moments in the script even more impactful. There is a scene where they light candles on a wedding cake together, and during this performance, the candles refused to cooperate. They improvised through the snafu together in a graceful way that added to the intimacy of the ritual.
Josh: I became emotional watching Herman’s family uncomfortably interact with Julia’s family, a reality that hit too close to home. In a time of facing tough truths, this is an important play for everyone to see. It is also ahead of its time, anticipating a time when this could easily be filmed and broadcast in prime time. But this play is also a fun, funny two hours about a close-knit neighborhood coming together in ways that seem distant, as it is set 100 years ago, and yet this extended family is all too familiar.
Sheri: Interracial couples know isolation well, as warm, close family relationships can often be impossible to achieve. When Julia reaches out to the black community to create a sense of family and is initially regarded with suspicion, she retreats into a defiant isolation and sings “I got to climb my way to glory; got to climb it by myself.” Anyone who has ever been let down in a time of need will feel this heartbreak particularly intensely.
All of the characters in this spectacular and engaging cast are united in walking their own difficult roads in isolation; from Fanny (delightfully portrayed by powerhouse actor Susan Anderson), the savvy, successful matriarch, walking the tightrope of keeping the favor of white folks by “being a credit to the race” and doing what is in her heart; Lula (played with natural, easy grace by Lisa McConnel), the salt-of-the earth mother who will sacrifice anything for her child; Mattie (tenderly portrayed with complexity by Myesha-Tiara), the young, unpolished mother, struggling under the weight of respectability politics; The Bell Man (dynamically delivered by Reid Coker), a lower-class white man struggling with his place in the world; Annabelle (a modern yet timeless portrayal by Laura Coleman), the prodigal daughter; Nelson (A heartbreakingly lovely performance by Kevin Patterson), a man serving a country that doesn’t respect him; Herman’s Mother (a powerful and electric delivery by Donna McGough), clinging to a stubborn self-imposed isolation from her son; and the children Teeta and Princess (pitch perfect and playful, Maya Hooks and Madison Murphy), one black and one white, on the cusp of understanding their different statuses in society.
Josh: Those kids are adorable. I love seeing kids in plays, what an experience for them. Their characters represent, to me, the hope the author has for the next generation who might see beyond the suspicions taught to us by parents and community.
Sheri: Placing hope in the next generation is a theme that constantly plays out in African-American art and is also echoed in the music of this play. Although not explicitly a musical, the a capella spirituals and original music make the piece warm and familiar. Married with the breezy open set and the ebb and flow rhythm of the traffic patterns, I felt as if I were peering over a fence into my neighbor’s yard on a hot summer afternoon.
Josh: I love seeing this tradition carried on in current plays like Lottery Day by Ike Holter – an African-American family living their lives. This is a warm, inviting, loud yard where everyone’s business is everyone’s business and I want to be a part of it. The actors and wonderful staging drew me in.
Sheri: And isn’t that what we all want? Simply to be included. With LGBTQ+ people fighting for the right to marry, this story told in this moment in time holds special resonance. Possessing the ability to love one another in all our messy imperfections is a right that many have fought and died for. Lately, the phrase “Marriage is a construct” is tossed around casually. That may be true, but to quote Wedding Band, “Some truth has no nourishment in it.”
The Artistic Home presents “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White” by Alice Childress playing through Dec. 17 at The Artistic Home, 1376 W. Grand Ave. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Joe Mazza, BraveLux Photography.