Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Alice in Wonderland
Over the past ten years, two outstanding productions of Childress' work have been seen in the Twin Cities: Trouble in Mind, at the Guthrie, and The Wedding Band, at Penumbra. Now comes a superb production by Penumbra of another Alice Childress play: Wine in the Wilderness. The play, written in 1969, takes place in 1964, and the action all occurs within fewer than twenty-four hours, all set in a Harlem studio apartment in the waning hours of riots that had raged on the streets for days, the aftermath of a police killing of a fifteen-year-old boy. This aspect of the play is based on fact, and that very fact sets the play in a specific time, place, and historical context while its pertinence to more recent events is completely evident. The play begins with the cries of people–police, looters, victims–on the street in a montage of voiceovers, and scenes of the mayhem are flashed on the walls of the set, lights faltering as the ability to bear witness pivots off and on.
However, Wine in the Wilderness is not about the riot, per se. There are no conversations about the events that triggered the riot or the underlying causes, though a sense of desperation and uncertainty about tomorrow kindled by the riots animates the play's most vibrant character, a thirty-year-old female factory worker from the South with the unlikely name Tommy.
Before Tommy arrives, we have met Bill, the apartment's occupant. Bill, in his 30s, is an artist, his residence full of canvases, paints, and cans stuffed with paintbrushes (Seitu Jones' terrific set design captures both the artists' digs and the hulking city beyond). He appears to have had some success and is now working on a triptych, three conjoined paintings around a single theme, his theme being African American womanhood. For one side of his triptych, he has painted the image of a young Black girl, a study in innocence and possibility. On the center canvas is a strong, empowered Black woman depicted as an African queen, beautiful and natural, and voluptuous. She is depicted in the apparel Bill imagines his African queen would wear, scant but signifying majesty.
On the third canvas Bill means to paint the image of a lost, down-and-out Black woman, whom he describes as being "as far from my African queen as a woman can get and still be female ... She's ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, a poor, dumb chick that's had her behind kicked until it's numb." All he needs is the right model. Bill explains this to his neighbor, an elderly inebriate known around the block simply as Oldtimer.
Before Oldtimer barged in, Bill had a call from his friend Sonny-Man. Sonny-Man and his wife, a social worker named Cynthia, dodged into a bar seeking shelter from the rioting and there met a woman who they are certain is the perfect model for Bill's last panel, the "the worst chick in town." Before long, Sonny-Man and Cynthia arrive with Tommy in tow. They told Tommy that she had to meet their friend, that he would be really interested in her.
Tommy is a force of nature, non-stop talk, brash with a braying laugh and total lack of a filter. Her wig is a limp mop of processed hair and her clothes garishly mismatched, in contrast to Cynthia's smart outfit and trimmed natural hair (the spot-on costumes are by Dana Rebecca Woods, wig and makeup design is by Destinee Steele). Tommy is also under the impression that Bill's interest in her would be as a woman, as a date–with no clue that he wants her merely as a model, let alone to represent "the worst chick in town."
That is the intelligent, ingenious set-up Childress creates before letting these five characters loose to play out the scenario through the night and onto the next morning. They depict the blight of classism in the Black community and the disconnect between a romanticized notion of the African queen as the paragon of womanhood while demonizing women like Tommy who heroically scrounge to persevere. While Bill and his friends treat Oldtimer with patronizing kindness, Tommy actually sees him, not as a "mascot" but as a man.
Childress's dialog sizzles with authenticity, smoldering with pain when cruel truths emerge, while engaging us with an abundance of humor. Directed by Penumbra's founder and artistic director emeritus Lou Bellamy, the production feels woven as a whole cloth, without any seems showing. Bellamy's actors totally absorb their characters and their interactions sizzle with electric energy.
Nubia Monks, as Tommy, and La'Tevin Alexander, as Bill, are both phenomenal, with a palpable chemistry between them that seethes beneath the class differences and Tommy's faulty understanding of Bill's interest in her. Monks imbues Tommy with a constant propulsion of energy, as if she fears that were she to pause, even for an instant, she will lose all momentum and sink, as if into quicksand. Alexander strikes the difficult balance between making Bill likeable and loathsome, and we watch his interplay with Tommy hoping that the artist can find a way to redeem himself.
Vinecia Coleman is excellent as Cynthia, recognizing the trap in which Tommy has been cast and trying to give Tommy a line to safety, yet still beholden to the higher status granted by her education and position of authority, as when Tommy, after admitting she never got past eight grade, defensively tells Cynthia, "You a social worker, and I know that means some college." Darrick Mosley's character, Sonny-Man, does less heavy lifting than the others, but his moniker and the dashiki he wears says it all, and Mosley acts the role with aplomb. James Craven, one of the great, durable lights of Twin Cities theater, is wonderful as Oldtimer, living by his wits, making do through the generosity and oversights of his neighbors, but still currying a chip of dignity to elevate his remaining days.
Lighting designer Marcus Dilliard, projection designer Miko Simmons, and sound designer and composer Gregory Robinson create the roar of the riots at the play's opening, and continue to convey shifting lights, ambient sounds, and musical backdrops as night falls and morning breaks, all contributing to an impressively unified production.
Wine in the Wilderness is not a widely known play, but it should be. This is the real thing, a play that creates a world pinned to a specific point in social history, yet that resonates with today's world, with a narrative that charts a clear path through thorny dilemmas to a persuasively wrought resolution, peopled by characters that are brimming with authenticity. All that was created by Alice Childress, while Lou Bellamy, his cast and creative team, have embellished it with artistic excellence, insight and love. It is outstanding work, and not to be missed.
Wine in the Wilderness runs through March 17, 2024, at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org.
Playwright: Alice Childress; Director: Lou Bellamy; Scenic Designer: Seitu Jones; Costume Design: Dana Woods; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design and Composer: Gregory Robinson; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Projections Design: Miko Simmons; Wig and Makeup Design: Destinee Steele; Stage Manager: Ronald Alois Schult; Assistant Stage Manager: Zhané Jackson.
Cast: La'Tevin Alexander (Bill Jameson), Vinecia Coleman (Cynthia), James Craven (Oldtimer), Darrick Mosley (Sonny-Man), Nubia Monks (Tommy). Voiceovers: Whitney Blount-Smith, Ashleigh Hamton, Audrianna Jackson, Zhané Jackson, Thomas O'Hehir-Johnson, Mark Pederson, Anita Robinson.