Few would deny the American theatre’s under-appreciation of Alice Childress, including Alice herself. A frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, she published an opinion piece in a 1969 Sunday Times titled “But I Do My Thing.” In it she declared, “Time is up…I’ve a play to write that may never be seen by any audience anywhere, but I do my thing.”
For decades, this statement could only be read as a sobering one, as her novels A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich and Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life drew greater acclaim than her plays. But today, after a resurgence of critical engagement with Childress, a long overdue Broadway production of her backstage comedy Trouble in Mind, and a forthcoming New York revival of Wedding Band: A Love-Hate Story in Black and White, it has finally begun to feel like we’re proving the great wordsmith wrong.
In 1966, Wedding Band made its debut at the University of Michigan. Six laborious years and a Joseph Papp intervention later, the play premiered in 1972 at the Public Theater, known then interchangeably as the New York Shakespeare Festival. After a few notable regional productions in recent years, it has finally been taken up, 50 years later, by another New York nonprofit with a similar affinity for the Bard, Theater for a New Audience (TFANA) in Brooklyn. Since its founding in 1979, TFANA, under the artistic direction of Jeffrey Horowitz, has remained devoted to the mission of producing classic and contemporary plays that resonate with them. In recent years, that “classic” classification has rightfully expanded. Shakespeare remains in tow, but now Adrienne Kennedy and María Irene Fornés run by his side. Where better then, for Alice Childress to do her thing?
Leading Wedding Band is no small feat for any conductor. The play masquerades as a romantic love story, when in actuality it is a condemnation of anti-miscegenation laws, white fragility, war, and isolation. The couple at its center, Black seamstress Julia and white baker Herman, confront a litany of challenges when Julia moves into a micro-community of Black women in Charleston, S.C., who have…a lot to say about her. World War I, a flu pandemic, and familial disapproval of the relationship do not help. At the helm of the new staging is director Awoye Timpo, certified Alice Childress fan and the founding producer of CLASSIX, a collective dedicated to bringing a contemporary vision to classic Black plays. The assignment seems like a perfect fit for Awoye—a fulfillment of CLASSIX’s mission, yes, but also a marriage of her skills developed over years of directing new works from emerging artists and assisting theatre titans like Ruben Santiago-Hudson and George C. Wolfe on older ones.
I sat down with Awoye over tea to discuss her affinity for Alice, directing this new production, and what it takes to make a classic.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: When did you first run into Alice Childress and her work?
AWOYE TIMPO: She came into my life late, actually. And when I encountered her it was like, Where have you been all my life? How did I go through an undergraduate theatre department program and spend so many years living in New York as an artist never encountering her? Eventually, though, she became one of those people whose name kept ringing in my ear. For example, six or so years ago, I was assisting Ruben Santiago-Hudson on a few shows.
(Laughs) Right? Ruben is an incredible keeper of Black stories. In many of these shows, the casts were older generations of Black actors, and I would ask them, “What plays were you in when you started? What do you remember reading and falling in love with?” People in the room would constantly bring up Alice Childress.
What about Wedding Band in particular?
This play I didn’t read until a few years ago through my work with CLASSIX. Our group had approached Theatre for a New Audience about a reading series of Black classic plays. The original intent was for it to be Trouble in Mind, but, no secret there, Roundabout Theatre Company had the rights. Regardless, it was unquestionable that the first work we did had to be an Alice Childress play. The next one we all agreed on was Wedding Band.
The play is chock full of complexities that make it hard to be human: shame, love, morals, dreams, duty. That’s a field day for any director. Where do you choose to begin?
For this production I allowed myself to sit and start asking questions: What are the things that I don’t understand? Where did this play come from? What’s the context under which this play was created? Alice wrote Wedding Band in the ’60s, it premiered in New York in the ’70s, but it’s set in 1918. Okay, why 1918? If we go down history’s timeline, what are the events leading us here: post-Reconstruction, WWI, an influenza pandemic, the Marcus Garvey movement. What a time to be thinking about Black and white people and their dreams! Then, to zoom out and write about those Black and white people in the 1960s, when you know that many of the promises people back then were seeking have not yet been fulfilled. Understanding the timeline was my way into understanding the play.
I’m sure it also helped that you and a couple of your collaborators were able to go to Charleston. What did that trip do for you all, and where is it showing up in rehearsal?
Alice is specific about different streets she mentions in the play, so we had that as our guide. Charleston is not a big city; it’s super walkable and surrounded by the sea.
Even more reason why the women in the play are all up in each other’s business.
All up in it, yes! Basically, we decided to go down for three days last October, but we did not plan that many specific things to do. We just knew we wanted to walk around, explore the architecture of the city, what it looks and smells and sounds like. The play takes place in a backyard, a place that’s inevitably hidden from view. But it was cool to peek in between homes and have an awareness of life, but not know exactly what was going on; to notice peoples’ boundaries, and the distinction between public and private. All of that shows up in the scenic design.
We also came across this amazing place called the Avery Institute (now the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture) that was founded as a school for Black students. The building was closed because of the pandemic, but we were able to speak with a researcher there who pointed us to resources online, the public library, and was basically able to color in a better picture of Black life in early 1900s Charleston.
Off-Broadway has not seen this play in decades. It’s easy to find fault with plays that were written a long time ago, but in resurrecting Wedding Band, you all are also introducing Alice Childress to another generation. What do you want today’s audiences to know about Alice?
I’ve been calling her a collision artist. The more I tap into research, the more I realize she intersected with so many different movements: She wrote alongside Paul Robeson in Freedom newspaper, she was involved with the Committee for Negroes in the Arts, the publishing of this play intersects with Black feminist liberation movements, just so much. She was always wrestling with ideas, and that manifested in the plays she wrote in the most delicious, magnificent ways.
As you mentioned, this Wedding Band journey began with a CLASSIX reading and has now blossomed into a full-fledged production. Talk to me about how the collective started and your goals moving forward.
A specific spark was being in the room with George C. Wolfe. I was an assistant director on the Broadway production of Shuffle Along in 2016, and hearing about his and the cast’s experiences over the course of their careers; that’s how I really developed a catalog of knowledge about Black theatre history. It was never an academic exercise, it was about being in that room.
One day George said: “Hey, have you ever read the plays of Kathleen Collins and Bill Gunn?” I had never heard of them before, but it’s George: If he says go read these plays, you go and read them. So I set out looking for them, but had the hardest time. I had to track down anthologies or specific public libraries where plays couldn’t be checked out, only copied. That lack really became the impetus of CLASSIX. We started small, with a couple readings at the Segal Center. From that, a lot of questions emerged about why people don’t know these plays, why they’re so hard to access, and what production future could they have? How can we integrate these works into classroom curriculum, what stories can be told, how can we give them new life?
And when it came to assembling the CLASSIX crew?
I started to think about it like putting together a team in a heist movie. AJ Muhammad—a producer of The Fire This Time Festival, a dramaturg, works at the Schomburg [Center for Black research in culture], overall OG—came on board officially. I met Arminda Thomas [dramaturg for this Wedding Band] working in California on a Nambi E. Kelley production. One day I just asked, “Hey, who have you been thinking about nowadays?” and she answered, “Alice Childress.”
There’s that ringing again.
Exactly. Brittney Bradford I met when she was still at Juilliard; AJ introduced her as someone who was just really interested in Black, classic and experimental drama. And finally, Dominique Rider, who is an incredible artist, I met when they were assisting on a show in New Haven. We connected through a mutual friend there and that was it. We became the crew.
How about the name?
One of the challenges with classic plays and Black history in general is people constantly feel like they are finding something for the first time. When actually, we have so much history. We are standing on the shoulders of other artists who have come before and building upon their legacy so future generations can enter this business fearlessly, knowing that they stand on something strong, even if they aren’t taught it.
There’s a quote from Alice in the press release, where she says Wedding Band is “about the humiliation of an entire nation.”
Ooh, the woman can write.
I’d argue we’re still wrestling with some of that humiliation, especially with regards to racism and racial discrimination in this country. Where do you think love fits into all the madness?
I think something interesting in life that also reads true in the play is that more than anything, the conditions of the world we’re in are shaping our lives every single day. Julia and Herman are doing all the individual things they can do to preserve the love they have, but the conditions of society limit their ability to actualize it into a life together. In this play, love is often associated with loss; there’s always something pulling at it from the other side. It’s reflected in the white characters as well as the Black ones. What are you willing to do to preserve your history, your honor, the legacy you believe you have built? What threatens that and is the power of your love enough to save it? It’s all devastating, but that’s the work. It’s people working to love.
By your standards, what needs to happen when those curtains go up the first night for this production to be a success?
There’s only one thing that’s important: that the work of Alice Childress be celebrated and her name in lights. For people to recognize the power of her writing, acknowledge her incredible life, to revel in her brilliant artistry. That’s the ultimate success, that people say her name.
Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a NY-based writer and critic, and the co-editor of 3Views on Theater. Bylines can be found at Broadway News, Glamour, OkayAfrica, InStyle, and a few other places on the internet. She can be found on Instagram at @brittaniidiannee.
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