Wine in the Wilderness (1969), by Alice Childress, was first performed on WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, as part of the series, ‘‘On Being Black.’’
Wine in the Wilderness takes place during a race riot in Harlem, New York City. Bill Jameson, an artist, is working on a ‘‘triptych’’ entitled ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness.’’ This series of three paintings is meant to express Bill’s ‘‘statement’’ about ‘‘black womanhood.’’ The first painting, of a young black girl, is meant to represent the innocence of childhood. The middle painting is of a beautiful African- American woman in African clothing, meant to represent Bill’s ideal black woman, whom he refers to as an ‘‘African queen,’’ or ‘‘the wine in the wilderness.’’ For the third painting, which he hasn’t yet started, Bill is looking for a down-and-out woman to model for his image of ‘‘what society has made of our women.’’
Bill’s friends introduce him to Tommy, a woman they’ve met at a bar, whom they think represents the ‘‘hopeless’’ type of woman he has in mind for his third painting. Tommy, however, discovers Bill’s true intention to paint her as representative of a woman who is ‘‘ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, poor,’’ and ‘‘dumb.’’ She angrily criticizes Bill and his friends for thinking that they are better than she is and for looking down on the ‘‘masses’’ of the African-American community who are less educated and less privileged than they. Bill comes to realize that Tommy herself is his true ‘‘African queen,’’ a woman like many in her community. He convinces Tommy to stay so he can paint her portrait as his new vision of African-American womanhood, the ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness.’’
In this play, Childress addresses the theme of perceptions of African-American women within the African-American community. Bill and his friends feel that African-American women have dominated African-American men in the past and should learn to be more subservient to the men in their lives. Tommy, on the other hand, argues that women like herself—strong, energetic, yet vulnerable—should not be criticized but should be embraced and celebrated by African-American men and the community as a whole.