“Wine in the Wilderness,” a 1969 play written by Alice Childress and currently being presented at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, is set on a summer night in Harlem, in 1964. There is a riot going on — a white police officer has killed an African-American teenager — and we hear the sirens and see the flashing police car lights, but the characters of the play stay safely indoors, in the apartment of the play’s central character, Bill.
Though Bill doesn’t engage directly in the riot, the turbulence of the time he’s living in adds a sense of urgency to his artistic mission. He is currently working on a triptych that will be called “Wine in the Wilderness.” He describes the work, whose title is inspired by Omar Khayyam’s “Rubaiyat,” as “three canvases on Black womanhood.” He says of the triptych’s strikingly beautiful central character, “My queen, my Black queen, will look down from the wall so that all the messed-up chicks in the neighborhood can see what a woman ought to be.”
That’s a pretentious, condescending thing for an artist to say, of course. And for Bill to really be a great artist, he’s got to figure that out. And he does get at least an inkling of enlightenment, in the play’s powerfully climactic final scene.
There is a lot of interest in Childress at the moment. The 20th century playwright — she died in 1994 at the age of 77 — may have been underappreciated during her lifetime, but a work of hers was performed on Broadway for the first time in late 2021 and early 2022, with the Tony-nominated production of “Trouble in Mind.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison is currently presenting two of her one-act plays, “Florence” and “Mojo,” together. And this production of “Wine in the Wilderness,” directed by Brandon J. Dirden (a Two River standout in recent years as both an actor and a director), effectively makes the case that “Wine in the Wilderness” is a work that’s deserving of rediscovery.
Bill, played by Korey Jackson, is joined at first by an elderly friend, Oldtimer (Keith Randolph Smith), who has not rioted himself, but has opportunistically picked up some liquor and other goods discarded by looters. “What’s in the street ain’t like stealin’,” he says. “This is leavin’s.”
They are soon joined by Bill’s friend Sonny-Man (Ricardy Fabre), a writer with artistic ambitions as lofty as Bill’s; and Sonny-Man’s wife Cynthia (Brittany Bellizeare), a social worker. They had just been at a bar and have brought with them Tommy (Crystal A. Dickinson), a factory worker who they thought would make a good model for the third, currently blank panel of Bill’s triptych.
Tommy (short for her compound first name, Tomorrow-Marie) is loud and coarse in a way that the more educated Bill, Sonny-Man and Cynthia aren’t, and bluntly blurts out whatever is on her mind. Sonny-Man and Cynthia thought she could make a good model for Bill because the third panel of the triptych is supposed to represent, basically, those “the messed-up chicks in the neighborhood” whom the Black queen looks down upon and inspires. Tommy, though, knows nothing about this, just that an artist may want to paint her.
Eventually, Bill and Tommy are left alone to get the painting done and — as it turns out — learn more about themselves, and each other. After Sonny-Man, Cynthia and Oldtimer return the next day, the story takes a surprising, uplifting turn. Tommy, a caricature at first, eventually becomes a three-dimensional person: Dickinson navigates the transition skillfully. Bill’s awakening is more sudden and, frankly, less believable, though Jackson does a good job of conveying his commanding confidence.
This is a compact play: Two scenes, one act, and a running time of less than 80 minutes. Childress called it a “comedy-drama,” and though there are certainly some funny moments along the way, I feel that the drama really dominates.
“Wine in the Wilderness” may have received little attention for decades. But its message of empowerment — though more subtle than one might expect from a play that takes place during a riot — and its vision for the future remain resonant, more than 50 years later.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank will present “Wine in the Wilderness” through Nov. 6. Visit tworivertheater.org.
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