Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Wedding Band
The St. Louis Black Repertory
Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of Molly Sweeney

Jacqueline Thompson and Jeff Cummings
Photo by Keshon Campbell
I love Wedding Band, by Alice Childress. It's full of brash, wise fools and humiliated, foolish wise men, who are all somehow just like you and me. Nobody's right or wrong all the time here, and the constant reshuffling of credibility onstage makes you burst out laughing. The new production by the Black Rep is intensively directed by Geovonday Jones, with tiny little threads of Tobacco Road woven into it, or even 19th century minstrel shows. But it all comes with the brilliance and intensity of great modern theatre, at the Center of Contemporary Arts (COCA) in St. Louis.

The two-hour show (with a 15 minute intermission) was originally completed in 1962 and set near the end of World War I, in "a city by the sea," in a poor Black enclave of South Carolina. But Childress (who also wrote "A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich") couldn't find a theatre to produce Wedding Band until 1966, when it debuted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Producers, nervous about the play's interracial love story, kept it from mainstream audiences until a New York Shakespeare Festival staging in 1972. Fifty-two years later, the scandal of miscegenation merely flickers on stage. But as a tender love story, it touches our hearts, thanks to the highly professional Jacqueline Thompson and Jeff Cummings, as Julia and Henry.

And, as a comedy, it's fantastic–not to mention, there's just something gripping about seeing smart, modern young actresses and actors completely transform themselves into backwoods bumpkins, who maintain their own shred of personal dignity in spite of each outrageously proclaimed ideal. Putting it another way, this cast gives us characters who know and understand the injustice of their situation, but plow ahead with each of their furious, bruised senses of victory just the same.

In the old days, the busybody landlady in Wedding Band, Fanny, would have been played by Black Rep senior ensemble member Linda Kennedy, now of sainted memory. In this new production, in that role, powerful and resourceful Velma Austin gives a performance that is part sprawling new invention and part loving homage. She is the greatest "foolish wise man" here, reading tea leaves and spreading gossip like caviar on a cracker.

And I understand that an actor's headshot may be the ultimate form of illusion. But Tamara Thomas, as Lula, could not have scored a greater departure from her own 8" x 10" if she had planned out her own car crash and then endured years of major reconstructive surgery, just to prepare for this role.

Christina Yancy also dispenses with modern attitudes as Mattie, yearning for her soldier-boy husband in 1918, and tortured over the injustices that military families face, even to this day, for the sacrifice of their loved ones. Christian Kitchens is excellent as Lula's son Nelson, a proud young man going off to war.

I'd say "it's all the director," of course (and Mr. Jones brings out amazing performances on every account), but I've also seen the effect of being in the same play with actress Kari Ely in the past, and how her mere presence seems to challenge the other performers. Ms. Ely, as always, is utterly superb here as Henry's old mother, with a strident, crystalline antebellum pride, demanding that he be brought out from Julia's home. Brought forth in secret to avoid any further damage to the white family's reputation. In the process, she puts every other Carolina crocodile to shame.

Ellie Schwetye is very fine as her daughter, pensive and humiliated at having to go into a Black woman's bedroom to "talk some sense" into her brother, who has fallen desperately ill. And Isaiah Di Lorenzo delivers a consummate performance as an outrageous traveling salesman. No other director has gotten this kind of magic out of him till now, that I've seen: part Bertolt Brecht and part Al Capp, stabbing across seemingly disconnected realities like God's lightning, fully on a par with Ms. Ely and Ms. Thomas. Vivian Helena Himes and Lucy Miller also do fine work as children in the care of Ms. Yancy's character, Mattie.

In his entertaining little book from 1956, "The Muses Are Heard," Truman Capote describes an Everyman Opera Company production of Porgy And Bess that travels from New York, ultimately to Moscow, as part of a cultural exchange program at the beginning of the Cold War. But Capote relates the Gershwin opera scandalized egalitarian Soviet audiences with its musicalized depictions of simple, impoverished Black characters in Charleston, South Carolina. This production of Wedding Band (set in the same state) might have provoked a similar reaction from idealistic postwar Russians.

But, ideologies aside, we generally tell each other the truth, or we're just taking turns playing the fool. And actors like these always strive to tell the truth, one way or another. Plus, you can't deny the strange, comic humanity that rises up from wisdom and foolishness, smashing together again and again, with such everlasting glee.

The set is quite lovely, I was sure it must have been designed by the leading scenic artists in town, Peter and Margery Spack. But, credit where credit is due! It's actually by Chris Cumberbatch, with terrific assistance from Taylor Deed and Kenneth Randle.

Wedding Band, a production of The St. Louis Black Repertory, runs through March 31, 2024, at the Center of Contemporary Art, Berges Theatre, 6880 Washington Avenue, St. Louis. For tickets and information, please visit

Cast, in order of appearance:
Julia: Jacqueline Thompson*
Teeta: Vivian Helena Himes
Mattie: Christina Yancy*
Lula: Tamara Thomas
Fanny: Velma Austin*
Nelson: Christian Kitchens
Bell Man: Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Princess: Lucy Miller
Henry: Jeff Cummings*
Annabelle: Ellie Schwetye
Herman's Mother: Kari Ely*

Production Staff:
Director: Geovonday Jones
Scenic Designer: Chris Cumberbatch
Costume Designer: Andre Harrington
Stage Manager: Richard Agnew*
Technical Director: Christian Kitchens
Lighting Designer: Zak Metalsky
Sound Designer: Kareem Deanes
Assistant Stage Manager: Tyja Lynxx
Costume Shop Supervisor: Ellen Minch
Props Designer: Mikhail Lynn
Scenic Artists: Taylor Deed, Kenneth Randle
Carpenters: Christian Kitchens, Christian LeNoir, Ezekiel Brown

* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association