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“Bricks and bottles were falling from rooftops like rain from clouds.” - Race Riots: New York, 1964
As glass shatters over the sounds of scattered sirens and the relentless ring-ringing of a rotary phone, we, the audience, crash into the middle of the 1964 Harlem Riots, with Bill Jameson crouched below a wooden table in the middle of his ransacked artist studio apartment, surrounded by three covered canvasses—the incomplete triptych. So begins a new production of Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness, staged for this year’s Philly Fringe and continuing through October 9.
With Bill (Akeem Davis), we are transported to a world that Childress knew well in the late 1960s, a world that she called Wine in the Wilderness, a title pulled from the lines of a love poem by 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. This play being a love poem to us—her people.
This modern re-rendering of the much re-rendered play, now onstage in Brewerytown under the direction of AZ Espinoza, is a production of Philadelphia Artists Collective (PAC) in partnership with theBlackBestFriend. Wine in the Wilderness is a play about the realities and illusions of race, class, and gender.
the playwright (who would write plays for four decades), who couldn’t care less
about the so-called white gaze, was more concerned with her people, Wine In
The Wilderness instead makes several searing critiques on itself, on us, on
our arts, on our elitism, on our gender roles, on our education, on our slang,
on our working class, on our poor, on what’s happening in our own homes (the
entire play takes place in Bill’s home), and not so much what’s happening in
the great out there. This play is not about them. It is about us. It asks each
of us what role we play in promoting and disarming the same isms that we claim
to critique. Damn, Alice! You was one bad mother—shut yo mouth.
Take a closer look
Thanks to the astute vision of prop designer and set consultant Sara Outing, this stage created at the turn-of-the-century Poth Brewery (which once pumped out 180,000 barrels of beer annually but is now converted to posh lofts), is authentically Harlem—strategically sprinkled with Jet magazines, and cloth-bound books, and lava lamps, and even a retro queen-sized bed with a mud cloth comforter. I spent time before and after the performance taking in the gallery of a set. I encourage you to take a closer look at the vibrant paintings and the original furnishings—the set is an art piece, a triptych in itself.
theBlackBestFriend's mission is to make “a creative hub for Black joy, resilience, and community,” and this comes alive in cofounder Espinoza’s direction, including a slow-motion dance party and an excellent playlist that I hope they give us access to at some point in the near future.
The cast, an intergenerational ensemble of Greater Philadelphia talent, are a warm and lovable bunch led by Davis and the versatile powerhouse Ciera Gardner as Tommy, whom I will follow to whatever role they decide to take next.
Wine in the Wilderness has been re-rendered many times since its 1969 debut, and one hope for modern-day versions of the play is the successful incorporation of digital technology. This production could have pushed itself harder on this front: the space has two projections going throughout the performance, but sporadically—they come on, they go off, they come on, they go off. They do not add much, if anything, to the story, and sometimes prove a distraction. They could have taken us beyond the walls into the Harlem riots, which we hear happening around us, or closer into PAC artist-in-residence Jihan Thomas’s stellar original paintings, which are at the center of the play’s narrative. Instead, the projections are more of a missed opportunity.
The costume design could also go further. Everyone knows that one notable aspect of 1960s Harlem was our fashion. We are talking about the hand-loomed, strip-woven, natural textiles era; the Grandassa clothing era; an era best-known for eye popping colors and prints in lime green, magenta, lemon, mimosa, jade, hot pink, and tangerine. It is a visual playground of options that doesn’t shine through in this production, which takes a drab, subdued color wave. I wanted it to shine, because I live for 1960s fashion and could see it done in a way that more authentically reflects the era and our chic essence as a people.
The responsibility to return
But I am nitpicking: the story is great, the acting dope, the set amazing. Childress models a critique that is not on “them,” but on ourselves, so my biggest critique here is not of the show, but the size of its audience.
The day I went to see Wine in the Wilderness, the seats were not even half full, and that should not be so. For the sake of buried history, for all of the storytellers in our city seeking connection with other storytellers, for all of the artists who get to be more self-critical, for all of the policymakers who had so much to say about Black life mattering during our own riots, for all of the children who would benefit from seeing themselves in this production, there is no reason that it shouldn’t be packed every night. Our tradition of oral story-sharing is far too valuable not to be seen and cherished.
And for Alice Childress, who kicked in doors, and was boycotted for her content, who left us a road map to the hidden treasure within ourselves, it is our responsibility to use Sankofa and return and go get it.
As historian Billy Mitchell of Harlem’s Apollo Theater said, "Sometimes you have got to really do something extraordinary or uncommon to get the attention of people.”
What, When, Where
Wine in the
Wilderness. By Alice Childress, directed
by AZ Espinoza. $30; pay-what-you-can tickets available for BIPOC and global
majority audiences. Through October 9, 2022, at Poth Brewery, 3145 W. Jefferson
Street, Philadelphia. fringearts.com or philaartistscollective.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination is not required; audiences must wear a mask during the show.
Poth Brewery is a wheelchair-accessible venue. There will be a relaxed performance on Sunday, October 2, 2022, at 3pm.
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