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Alice Childress (1916-1994) is having a moment. Last fall saw the long-awaited Broadway debut of her showbiz satire Trouble in Mind, which was deemed too pointed in its handling of racism in the theater industry to be produced in the 1960s. Now, EgoPo Classic Theater presents the Philadelphia premiere of her spare, moving one-act Wine in the Wilderness.
Trouble in Mind has gained a worshipful following across the decades, but Wine in the Wilderness is less known. Dating from 1969, it finds Childress operating in much the same way as contemporaries Amiri Baraka or Edward Albee, distilling social issues into compelling miniatures and using charged private relationships to represent larger, more intricate matters. Director Damien J. Wallace strikes a compelling balance between the personal and political in the story that suits Childress’s text.
In a Harlem studio
The Bluver Theatre at the Drake transforms into the Harlem art studio of Bill Jamerson (Andre G. Brown), with striking sketches and vibrant tapestries lining the walls of the auditorium. (Marie Lester designed the immersive, well-detailed set.) Amid the echoes of civil unrest heard from his window, which sound designer Chris Sannino renders with exactitude, Bill struggles to finish the triptych of paintings that gives the play its title.
Taking Black womanhood as his subject, he begins with a charming picture of a young girl, which he follows with an idealized portrait of a feminine goddess. He condescendingly decides to cap the project with an image of the downtrodden contemporary woman, brought low by society, but he lacks a model. He meets his ironic muse in the form of Tommy (Ontaria Kim Wilson), a brash, unapologetic neighbor who seeks solace amid the riot in Bill’s apartment.
Or so he thinks. Childress’s action trades lightly in plot, focusing instead on the ways that Tommy and Bill’s encounter strips them each of artifice. Tommy uses her quick tongue and harsh words as a defense mechanism, protecting herself by never allowing anyone to get too close. Even as she expresses her desire for a husband and family, she builds walls without realizing it. Her keen observations, though, draw Bill’s attention to the way he’s upheld white European standards of beauty in his ostensibly Black art—and in turn, he redirects her fiery spirit toward self-love.
Although the play is rounded out by several tertiary characters—well played by Monroe Barrick, Cynda Purnell, and Brennan S. Malone—the drama is at its most engaging and effective with Bill and Tommy at its center. Wallace has recruited a fine pair of actors for these roles. Brown captures in turn the pretensions of a serious artist, the conflicted nature of a Black man in a repressive society, and the tender awakening that comes when he acknowledges his genuine feelings for Tommy. It is heartening to watch his perspective expand and grow through lived experience and relation to others.
Wilson is simply riveting. She arrives playing Tommy’s artifice, which is represented somewhat by the oddly mismatched and tacky clothes she wears in early scenes. (Tiffany Bacon did the costumes.) The outsized aura she projects here makes her ultimate transformation into a confident woman in the later scenes feel like a truly defined journey. Wilson shows the audience how Tommy’s behavior, her convictions, and her unwillingness to speak anything less than the truth shapes the perspectives of every other character in the play.
Through his encounter with Tommy, Bill comes to understand how best to convey truth in art. It’s a message that Childress also spent her entire career communicating. How fortunate we are to reap the benefits of her rediscovery.
What, When, Where
Wine in the Wilderness. By Alice Childress, directed by Damien J. Wallace. $12-$36. Through January 30, 2022, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
A streaming version of the production ($32 rental fee) will be available from January 25-30, 2022.
All audience members must present proof of Covid-19 vaccination to attend an in-person performance, and masks are required at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue, with all-gender restrooms.
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