Saturday, May 29, 2021

574. WEDDING BAND. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

James Broderick, Ruby Dee. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)
WEDDING BAND [Comedy-Drama/Race/Romance/Southern] A: Alice Childress; D: Alice Childress and Joseph Papp; S: Ming Cho Lee; C: Theoni V. Aldredge; L: Martin Aronstein; P: New York Shakespeare Festival; T: Public Theater/Estelle R. Newman Theater (OB); 9/26/72-2/25/73 (175)

Ruby Dee, Hilda Haynes.
Alice Childress’s drama of Black-white racial attitudes in 1918 South Carolina--first produced in 1966 at the University of Michigan--was unusual in its choice of time and place, coming as it did in an era when other Black playwrights were preoccupied with the harshness of life in the contemporary urban landscape, especially the ghetto. It received warm, though reserved, notices, and was ultimately seen as one of the decade’s most effective dramas of the Black experience.

Julia Augustine (Ruby Dee), a relatively well-educated, sharp-thinking Black woman in her 30s, has been the mistress of Herman (James Broderick, succeeded by Robert Loggia), a white baker, for 10 years. The miscegenation laws of South Carolina make their longed-for marriage illegal, and do not even permit Herman to be in Julia’s abode. She has thus moved frequently in search of a place where she and he can meet without attracting undue attention.

Herman has never had the courage to take Julia away to the presumably more accommodating North, where he can marry and live with her. He contracts the flu (1918 was the year of the horrendous influenza pandemic) and is put up at her new apartment, where his bigoted mother (Jean David) and sister, Annabelle (Polly Holliday), come to take him home, insulting Julia in the process. When Herman finally returns to take Julia North, she blows up at him. Eventually she succumbs to her emotions as he dies in her arms.

Played in Ming Cho Lee’s beautifully designed tenement backyard set, with the interior of Julia’s apartment visible, the play sharply limned the life of the housing complex with its diverse characters. There were criticisms that these people seemed too charming and amusing as opposed to the stereotypical rednecks, and several commentators suggested that the material could have inspired a musical like Show Boat or Porgy and Bess. Childress’s anger at white racism was apparent, but not overly hammered; when a tone of 1972 militantism occasionally crept in the effect was discomfiting.

Among the charges aimed at the play were its “sentimentality” and “old-fashioned” style, in Clive Barnes’s words. Douglas Watt picked on its drawn-out first act, a few cardboard characters, and a feeling of the “pat and superficial.” Yet it was liked heartily for its touching subject matter, its human insights, and its outstanding performances.

Wedding Band,” wrote Harold Clurman, “has an authenticity which, whatever its faults, makes it compelling both as script and performance.” Both Ruby Dee and James Broderick (father of Matthew) were extolled, as were the others in the ensemble, among them Hilda Haynes, Juanita Clark, Clarice Taylor, Brandon Maggart (suceeded by Anthony Palmer), and Albert Hall. Dee’s performance earned her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.

A well-received TV version in 1974 costarred Dee and J.D. Cannon.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here. 

Next up: The Wedding of Iphigenia and Iphigenia in Concert.