Fifty years ago, African-American playwright Alice Childress wrote a play about the racial climate in her home town of Charleston, SC—the racial climate, that is, of fifty years before that in 1918. It's called Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, and it laments the perpetual cycle of racial separation that seems impossible to overcome. This lament is embodied in the star-crossed lovers of Julia and Herman, who are black and white and very much in love, but whose people cannot abide their mutually-expressed union—the one side out of fear and suspicion, the other out of bigotry and privilege, the both institutionalized.
Julia and Herman
Students from Allegheny College perform Julia and Hermann in Alice Childress's Wedding Band in February 2014.
It's really a rather despairing piece, brutal in places, not unlike a Tennessee Williams play, and it's apparently based on a true story. Like many of Childress's best works, it demands a confrontation between white and black, more importantly, a confrontation of white by black. Here the confrontation is wrathful, excoriating; in other plays of hers, it is simply righteous.[i] Always, with Alice Childress, it is about dignity. And not simply a private nobility found by, say, Walter Jr. in A Raisin in the Sun that keeps him from debasing himself with values that go against his core. This is a dignity that moves outward and will feel like an assault on the sphere of privilege, though it simply may be a restoration of one's natural bearing after a long-held defensive crouch.
Dignity is. It cannot forever be suppressed. It is inherent, perennial. And yet, when it reveals itself in a culture that equates its arousal with sedition, it will trigger responses, violent or cunning, coordinated or spontaneous, to squelch it and beat it back down. Such response is not necessarily even conscious; it may be pre-conscious just as self-preservation is. We fight, social-creatures that we are, to preserve the social structure as we have imbibed it, and fear of black uprising is woven into the Great American social narrative as effectively as stars and bars on a flag.
Black and White
Growing up white in New Hampshire, I only knew two boys of color in all of elementary school. There was Richard, in 1st and 2nd grade, and Cliffy, in 5th and 6th grade. Now I was not a bigoted kid and I was a peacemaker by nature. I was raised with Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers. But I remember distinctly chasing after and punching these two boys, even though I rarely got into fights with anyone else, and in my kid brain, it was just because I found them annoying. What was I doing? Was I enforcing the super-narrative of white supremacy on the playground despite Jim Henson and Fred Rogers' best efforts? If not, my actions were indistinguishable from one who was.
We gotta change the narrative. This will be the mantra of this blog for the perceivable future. We gotta change the narrative.
We in the theatre: How do we change that narrative? We can’t control TV or social media or film or personal conversations, but we do have a stage.
Should we all go and produce Wedding Band? Could be.[ii] The plays of Alice Childress are being rediscovered and performed more around the country. She's one of few playwrights even to this day who dramatizes earnest or realistic interaction among interracial casts. She broaches the uncomfortable conversations, and she doesn't make the black character the sacrificial lamb at the end, having to die, albeit sympathetically, in order to reestablish order!! (In fact, Herman is the one weakened by the influenza bug.) Still, to what degree does Alice Childress change the narrative?
Looking carefully at her plays, it seems Alice Childress is saying racial dialogue is essential but futile. Her plays end as if the airing of earnest feeling by African-Americans and of their grievances will be a spark that white bigotry cannot sustain without an explosion. She seems to project her imagination no further than that moment. I wonder if she could foresee a change of heart in her white characters. More importantly, could she allow herself to believe in changes of heart in white society? Could her people? For African-Americans, after centuries now of battle-fatigue, torn between hope and despair, that's a heavy request.
Wedding Band is despairing, and stories of despair may ultimately fall short of changing our narrative. That is the narrative that we're working to change—despair and fear and scarcity and suspicion of the ill-intentions of others. This is simply a vein and not the sum total of Childress’s work, which is rich and textured and worthy of our attention.
But it would be good to get some plays that work in dialogue with plays such as Wedding Band or Childress’s masterwork, Trouble in Mind. What about dramatizing some true stories that reinforce that new narrative? For example, an interracial marriage that was not torn to shreds by racism but which worked despite the odds.
Louis and Louisa
We don't have to go far to find one. Mr. Louis Gregory, a native of Charleston, SC himself, was a tireless and fearless promoter of 'racial amity' for decades throughout the South and beyond. He married Louisa Mathews, an Englishwoman and fellow Baha’i, in 1912, and she would become his other wing. They struggled and survived, and their love and relationship soared.
Louis and Louisa Gregory, married 1912. ("8 Interracial Relationships That Changed History")
This is just one example of a story that switches up the old wornout notions. And it’s not unrealistic, because it happened. There is an abundance of examples out there to provide a foundation of a counter-narrative, one which asserts black and white may find harmony and are not doomed to a perpetual troubled marriage.
[i] Read more: "Who's Afraid of Alice Childress? Notes on PRC's 2015 production of Trouble in Mind." Also, a play summary of Wedding Band.
[ii] Actually, my advice to an ambitious Artistic Director would be to hold an Alice Childress festival, in which several of her plays including Wedding Band are given staged readings, while arguably her best play, Trouble in Mind is fully staged. Have talkbacks, get the community involved and dialogue going...