For some people, love is a private affair between smitten individuals who should be free to do whatever they wish, including marry. For Julia (Dame-Jasmine Hughes) and Herman (Peter Christian Hansen), passionate partners for 10 years, love is a public matter that invokes America's vaunted ideals and some of its ugly history.
She is black and he is white in a culture — 1918 Charleston, S.C. — that has both a firm racial hierarchy and stringent proscriptions against their secret love, legal or otherwise. These flirty, forbidden lovers are at the aching center of "Wedding Band," the lyrical drama by Alice Childress that kicked off Penumbra Theatre's 41st season Thursday.
Directed exquisitely by Lou Bellamy and performed with deeply felt poetry and heartbreak by a superb cast, the drama offers a series of slow-motion explosions that light up the asterisks dreams.
"Wedding Band," written in 1962, is set in the wake of a world war that saw the Allies defeat the Axis powers, followed by race riots and a flu epidemic that ravaged the country. All of those historical events inform the action. Herman, his mother (lacerating Laura Esping) and sister (starchy Jen Maren) are German-American. While Germans were viewed with suspicion at that time, they know the nation's racial hierarchy well enough to call on certain privileges.
Julia's poor, black Gullah neighbors who are all up in the lovers' business — providing great comic relief — include self-serving landlady Fanny Johnson (pitch-perfect George Keller); kindhearted friend Lula Green (magnanimous Austene Van); her adopted soldier son, Nelson (smooth Darius Dotch); illiterate candy seller Mattie (Ivory Doublette) and the children she cares for (Maya White, Nia Stiggers and Frances Ronning).
Bellamy's production has efficient, transporting design, including a neat, telling set by Vicki Smith, subtle sky-lighting by Michael Wangen and immersive sound design by Scott Edwards.
Hughes and Hansen, who have strong chemistry, carry the show on their capable shoulders. In moments of pleasure with Herman, Hughes' body and brow are often knotted. With eloquent physicality, the dreams and fears roiling Julia's soul break like waves on her face. We see Julia's attempts to escape the sickness of the world order that she and Herman are enmeshed in, and feel both her weariness and determination.
Hansen's character is not as deep, but the actor delivers well, inviting us into the conflicted soul of a man following his heart.
Childress, whose "Trouble in Mind" was staged at the Guthrie last year, uses a compelling relationship to speak on issues that continue to resonate at a time when intimate experiences continue to explode in the political arena even as the nation struggles to fulfill its promise.