Congo Square’s Wedding Band plays on Steppenwolf’s Main Stage

Congo Square’s Wedding Band plays on Steppenwolf’s Main Stage

By Edith McCauley, Theater Critic

Congo Square Theatre Company, in existence only three years, emerges as a dynamic group of young actors dedicated to artistic excellence. Derrick Sanders and Javon Johnson, who were acting in a production directed by Ron OJ Parsons, informed him of their desire to come to Chicago to start a new company. On their arrival, they encountered old friends and formed the Congo Square Theatre Company. Named for a square in New Orleans where slaves congregated on Sunday to sell crafts and food items, the group commemorates these African-American entrepreneurs. At a talk-back session following the performance, the actors expressed their delight at having the opportunity to bring their work to Steppenwolf.

Ron OJ Parsons, who directs Wedding Band, also directed their first Chicago production, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Wilson attended, and has become a part of Congo Square’s advisory board. With the support of other greats, the company quickly achieved success. Martha Lavey, artistic director at Steppenwolf, saw their work and encouraged them to be a part of the current season. The result Alice Childress’ Wedding Band on Main Stage.

First staged in 1966, it is the story of an interracial relationship in South Carolina in 1918. The Jim Crow laws had completely immobilized the African-American community, and their struggle to survive dominated daily life. Julia Augustine, played brilliantly by Libya Pugh, moves to a house owned by Fanny Johnson (TaRon Patton). Intent on improving ‘the race,” Fanny immediately discovers Julia’s white lover, Herman (Rick Snyder). A baker of German descent, he has protected Julia as best he can, but circumstances bode of inevitable tragedy.

The backyards of the humble dwellings, reminiscent of August Wilson’s sets, in Fences and King Hedley II, are the stage where joy and tragedy play out. Mattie (Monifa Days) awaits the return of her husband from the Navy, while Lula (Ann Joseph) bids farewell to son Nelson (Will Sims II) off to fight in Europe. The Bell Man (Robert Breuler), much like the insurance man of early days, comes to sell his wares and collect the few pennies owed him. Jasmine Randle as Teeto and Rae Gray as Princess romp and play oblivious to the dangers awaiting them in a racist world.

Herman falls victim to the influenza epidemic of 1918 and, lying in Julia’s bed, he becomes the center of controversy. His mother (Deanna Dunagan) and sister (Jennie Moreau) arrive, and a screaming confrontation erupts. The impossibility of marriage of an interracial couple was a Jim Crow law that remained on the books of South Carolina until 1998, and even then 39 percent of the voters wanted it to remain. Congo and Steppenwolf have begun a relationship that hopefully will continue. Snyder and Breuler of Steppenwolf’s ensemble and Days, Green, Patton, and Sims of Congo Square comprise a cast giving a stellar and memorable performance.

Wedding Band runs through March 30. Its historical and current relevance makes it a production that must be seen.

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