In the dead of winter, last January, my Zoom friends and I decided we’d travel to the Stratford Festival in early September 2023. It was an impromptu idea, born of short days and long nights hunkering down inside our homes waiting for the pandemic to pass us by. As the pre-eminent Shakespearean Festival in North America, now in its 71st year, the Stratford Festival is the same age as most of my friends. As a teenager, it was the centre of culture for me. From first sight, I’ve adored it: the theatres, the plays, and the quaint little town of Stratford, Ontario, perched among the most fertile agricultural land in Canada.
The first time I was at the Stratford Festival, I heard a young Joni Mitchell sing and watched Hamlet ask, “To be, or not to be, that is the question:” Both offered me a glimpse of another world where music and language mattered. It was a compelling sensation, one that’s stayed with me my entire life, and I wanted to share it with my closest friends, the group that had gotten me through the last few years in good humour.
The “friends”, as I like to call them, have been friends for more than 50 years. We met in Ottawa back in the 1970s when we were beginning our adult lives. We were innocents, student rebels caught up in the Zeitgeist of the time: a sense that the world was ours to conquer and that we could change it according to our likes and dislikes, our political persuasions, and our taste in music, clothes and entertainment. During the pandemic, we came together again online every Friday since March 2020, to discuss the week’s events and share our joys and sorrows.
Nine of us travelled to Stratford this September; it seemed like a continuation of our weekly Zoom calls. We rented a massive house in St. Mary’s, a half hour’s drive from Stratford, where we lived for six days, cooking our meals together, eating at the long dining room table, trading stories and ideas, and remembering what it was like when we lived together in various co-operative houses while attending university. Before retiring, one member was a university vice-president, another an archivist, others teachers, professors, civil servants and one Order of Canada lawyer. We’d all been lucky enough to grow up in post-war Canada, where a year’s university fees were about $500.00 and a one-bedroom apartment rented for the same amount as one dinner in a good restaurant. We could find jobs in the summer to help with our tuition and living costs. We lived frugally, not worrying much about the future, and we understood that a good job, often with a pension and health benefits, would be waiting for us after graduation. Since then, we’ve raised our children and buried our parents, overcome illness and disappointments, and miraculously remained good, decent people who continue to care for one another.
When we’d booked nine tickets for six different plays, I thought it would be the plays themselves, King Lear, Richard II, Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay’s 1968 Les Belles- Soeurs, that would be the centre of our Stratford experience. Ultimately, the heart-wrenching play, the Wedding Band by American playwright Alice Childress, brought me to tears and reminded me how powerful the theatre can be. Wedding Band is about Julia, a black woman carrying on an illegal love affair with Herman, a white baker, in 1918 in the American South. It is also about Julia’s community of women neighbours, five other black women, each in their own way, struggling to keep going in a segregated, determinedly racist war-time America. The wonder of the smallish and refurbished Tom Patterson Theatre stage is that the audience gets an intimate, 180-degree look at these women’s stories.
Wedding Band Play
Childress, who wrote the play in the early 1960s, was once quoted in an interview saying, “I wrote my play Wedding Band as a remembrance of the intellectual poor. The poor, genteel and sensitive people who are seamstresses, wives, coal carriers, candymakers, sharecroppers, bakers, baby caretakers, housewives, foot soldiers, penny-candy sellers, vegetable peelers…I was raised among such people.” After the play, I did something I’d never done at the theatre. I spoke to Antonette Rudder, the actor who played Julia, taking her hand in mine and thanking her for her beautiful and moving performance. I never cry in the theatre, I told her, but that night I did.
What became memorable about our trip to Stratford were, to some extent, the plays. Still, it was the friendship, the nine of us, bunking together, preparing food together, talking and talking among ourselves, that made the experience so vital and so meaningful. It was more than I ever expected it to be. More than I could hope for when old friends unite for a week in the country. As much as we deserve. Nothing more and nothing less.