'Wedding Band' review — this richly detailed play about race, sex, class, and violence will get under your skin

Read our review of Alice Childress's powerful 1960s drama Wedding Band, now in performances at the Lyric Hammersmith to 29 June.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

The titular piece of jewellery in Alice Childress’s play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White is worn on a chain around the protagonist, Julia’s, neck. It’s set in 1918 but Childress, writing in 1962 at the height of the Civil Rights movement, wasn’t harking back to some distant past: “miscegenation” laws were still in practice in many Southern states and only finally abolished following the case of Loving vs the State of Georgia in 1967. In this play, the wedding band is literally banned.

Childress’s Trouble in Mind was revived at the National Theatre in 2021 and Wedding Band is further evidence of a fascinating playwright combining social realism and melodrama with disarming frankness about race, sex, class, and violence. This bold and richly detailed production by Monique Touko is performed by an outstanding ensemble who beautifully capture both the tragedy and the mordant humour of the piece.

Set in Charleston, South Carolina, seamstress Julia Augustine has been driven out of other accommodation and joins an improvised community of women who eke out a living by undertaking piecework. They nevertheless have formed bonds and learnt to accept each other’s quirks. World War I rages beyond, offering the Black community the opportunity to show their patriotism in the hope that it will be rewarded afterwards, while knowing perfectly well that it’s all futile.

Paul Wills’s set design, with its metallic fences and geometric panels, evokes a compound or even a prison. There’s little safety in the domestic space; early in the play, the “Bell Man” (Owen Whitelaw), a travelling salesman, muscles his way into Julia’s room and tries to rape her.

Landlady and queen bee Fanny (Lachele Carl) puts on affectedly genteel airs and reads fortunes in tea leaves. The illiterate Mattie (Bethan Mary-James) is raising her daughter Teeta and sorely missing her sailor husband who’s away fighting, while Lula (Diveen Henry) is a widow and the adoptive mother of Nelson (Patrick Martins), an orphan who’s now a strapping young man serving in the army and in greater danger of being killed at home than at war.

In her UK stage debut, British-American actress Deborah Ayorinde gives a radiantly heartbreaking performance as Julia. She is celebrating her tenth anniversary with her “gentleman friend” Herman (David Walmsley), a baker who comes from a family of sharecroppers with Klan connections and some German heritage (the latter singles his family out for harassment during wartime). He gets defensive when Julia criticises “white folks”.

Wedding Band - LT - 1200

Her wedding dress has been ready for years but she can’t wear it to make their love public and legally binding. Julia and Herman’s relationship can only thrive by shutting the world away.

However, when he collapses with flu, she’s forced to accept the intrusion of his virulently racist mother Thelma (Geraldine Alexander) and weak-willed sister Annabelle (Poppy Gilbert) in her makeshift home, since calling a doctor would involve the police getting involved. Black and white are forced together as life hangs in the balance. Childress doesn’t hold back: insults are hurled on both sides.

The details in Childress’s writing and Touko’s production are so telling. “Princess”, a little girl whom Mattie looks after, demands that her playmate Teeta calls her “Ma’am” and tries to grab the silk parasol that Mattie is sent as a gift from her husband.

Fanny is initially obsequious towards the white visitors – who don’t want to touch anything for fear of being contaminated – but withdraws her best tea service when they go too far with their insults. And there are several pithy observations (“Bad taste sells” says Herman of tacky wartime baking).

“It’s wrong to hate,” Herman instructs Julia. “It’s wrong to love as well,” she responds. This is a play that gets under the skin, and this production tells Childress’s story in all its sprawling glory.

Wedding Band is at the Lyric Hammersmith through 29 June. Book Wedding Band tickets on London Theatre.

Book Tickets CTA - LT/NYTG

Photo credit: Wedding Band (Photos by Mark Senior)

Originally published on

Subscribe to our newsletter to unlock exclusive London theatre updates!

  • Get early access to tickets for the newest shows
  • Access to exclusive deals and promotions
  • Stay in the know about news in the West End
  • Get updates on shows that are important to you

You can unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy