“Wine in the Wilderness” is a heady night in the theater

Korey Jackson sitting on the couch and Keith Randolph Smith leaning on the back of the couch
Korey Jackson and Keith Randolph Smith in Wine in the Wilderness at Two River Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

This talented cast brings Childress’ characters to amazing life

Crystal Dickinson and Brittany Bellizeare sitting on a couch talking to each other
Crystal Dickinson and Brittany Bellizeare in Wine in the Wilderness at Two River Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Alice Childress (1916 – 1994) was a prolific novelist and playwright. She is the only African-American woman to have written, produced, and published plays in four consecutive decades. Lately, her plays are receiving attention in theaters around the country, and her themes of Black female empowerment and interracial and sexual politics strike resonant chords in today’s society. The Two River Theater’s intoxicating production of her 1969 play Wine in the Wilderness brings her into the spotlight she so richly deserves.

It is 1964 in Harlem, where riots over the death of a young Black man by white police inflame the neighborhood. Bill Jameson (Korey Jackson) is a young struggling artist. He is working on a triptych depicting three stages of Black womanhood — youthful and innocent, cooly self-assured and beautiful after making all the right choices, and ridiculous and scatterbrained after making all the wrong choices and wasting her potential. He is seeking a subject for its final panel. The Old Timer (Keith Randolph Smith) arrives with an assortment of items dropped by looters that he has picked up off the streets and claims for his own, and seeks to store them in Bill’s apartment. 

Bill’s friends Sonny-Man (Ricardy Fabre) and Cynthia (Brittany Bellizeare) arrive with Tommy (Crystal A. Dickinson), who they think would be the perfect model for Bill’s third panel, without telling Tommy why they’ve brought her there. Her casually ratty outfit and cheap wig, her blunt way of speaking her mind, and her being discovered as she was lifting other people’s spirits in a bar after her apartment has been burned out, are a stark contrast to the poised, polished social worker Cynthia. Bill agrees with Sonny-Man and Cynthia’s assessment, and after getting the others out of his apartment, asks if he can paint Tommy’s picture without revealing the reason why.

After Tommy agrees to be painted, she overhears a call Bill receives and is suddenly moved to reveal a part of her personality she hasn’t shown before. Bill finds he can not use her in the triptych the way he wants to, beginning to see Tommy in all her complexity. But with the next day comes revelations that shake all five characters.

The cast, under the direction of Two River favorite Brandon J. Dirden, brings Childress’ characters to amazing life. Dickinson’s Tommy is the driving force propelling Wine in the Wilderness. She has the meatiest role and uses her formidable talent to create a warm-blooded, beautiful woman in all her insecurity and need for love and fierce pride, and intelligence.

Jackson’s Bill is an artist who has never seen his subjects as living, feeling beings but as symbols that are creations of his imaginings.  Bellizeare and Fabre, as an upwardly-mobile couple, score with dialogue tinged with condescension that reveals the sexual political struggle within their relationship and their own stereotyped views of people they see as unlike themselves. Smith’s Old Timer, used at the start for comedy, goes along with having his worth as an elder in the community undercut until Tommy discovers something that none of his friends know. Their interaction toward the end of the play is truly poignant.

Two River’s design team has come up with an apartment that visually sets the play in its time and location. However — and this is a minor quibble — the apartment seems too spacious; a little less room might have provided an additional sense of tension or urgency to the play. Still, kudos to scenic designer Richard H. Morris Jr., lighting designers Kathy A. Perkins and Christopher Gilmore, sound designer Kay Richardson, and costume designers Karen Perry and Caity Mulkearns.

The full cast on stage in apartment scene
The full cast of Wine in the Wilderness at Two River Theater. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Taut and unsparing yet at times lyrical, Wine in the Wilderness revisits a rarely retold time in history when people thought it possible to solve issues we still face today. Alice Childress’ play shows beauty and strength, and passion, making it a must-see for play-goers. I strongly recommend making the trip to Red Bank to see this beautiful, moving production of Wine in the Wilderness.

Wine in the Wilderness is presented in the Robert and Judith Rechnitz Theater at Two River Theater in Red Bank through November 6th.  For more information or to buy tickets, call 732-345-1400 or visit tworivertheater.org. The wearing of masks is strongly recommended in the building but is not mandatory.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has recently been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre reviewers. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.