The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The play begins with a moderately long prologue, which may be likened to a soliloquy, spoken years later by the adult Ray. This device provides a context that distances the action that follows, sets the urban scene, gives a wistful tone, introduces the special, inward, and sensitive personality of Ray, and establishes his experience and point of view as the focus of attention and meaning. In poetic prose, Ray shares his memory of what for him has turned out to be the most meaningful event of his last “wine time” summer, his daily, brief meetings with a mysterious girl with whom he fell in love. By the end of that summer, she had moved away, and he had turned sixteen and joined the Navy.

The three acts of the play then take the form mainly of dialogue between family members and friends in a working-class neighborhood; the characters are entertaining themselves with large quantities of talk and wine after another trying day. Men and women talk to one another about their relationships, men talk with men about women, and women talk with women about men. The audience senses the hidden agendas in these conversations. Themes emerge, such as the ways in which lives are molded by the pressures of poverty and racism, the nature of true manhood and the ways in which it might involve women and family, and potential and loss.

The action takes place mostly on the Dawson family’s stoop, but sometimes the stage lighting shifts the scene to “the Avenue,” where a mirroring subplot takes place. Act 1 tells the audience what it needs to know about Cliff and Lou Dawson and their adopted nephew, Ray, and presents some options that might be available for Ray. It also presents the conflicts between and within Cliff and Lou. These conflicts are echoed and aggravated by conflicts between these characters and various minor characters. In act 2, the option of “the girl” is presented along with the conflict within Ray, and the earlier established conflicts are heightened. In act 3, the conflicts and themes are quickly brought to a crisis that is just as quickly resolved by violence.

The action all takes place on a single hot summer night. As usual, Cliff, Lou, and Ray are out on their stoop, talking and drinking cheap wine. From time to time, they are joined by friends and acquaintances. Their neighbors are also out on their stoops, frowning on Cliff, whom they consider loud and crude. Cliff is equally annoyed by his...

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The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In the Wine Time begins with a poetic prologue, spoken by Ray, looking back on his encounters with the woman of his dreams—brief meetings when she passed the corner where he waited each evening of the summer of his “last wine time.” The relationship, with the two never speaking because “we know all we want to find out,” puzzled Ray’s aunt and uncle, Lou and Cliff Dawson, and led to arguments. Ray was crushed when the girl failed to appear one night, but she reappeared the next evening and spoke to him for the first time, warning him to stop drinking wine and promising that she would be waiting “out in the world” when he was ready to come. Ray finishes his prologue, then goes back in time to the summer he began the search which the older Ray confesses he has not completed.

Act 1 opens with the voice of a radio disc jockey, which gives way to the rhythm and blues music that will continue through the play, sometimes competing with Miss Minny Garrison’s gospel music. Lou, Cliff, and Ray, sitting on their doorstep, watch the evening ritual of their white neighbor, Mrs. Krump, trying unsuccessfully to get her son to bring his drunk father in from the street, where he is urinating on a pole. As Mr. Krump is menaced by Red and Bama, two toughs, Miss Minny intervenes, getting Ray to take Mr. Krump—over Cliff’s objections. When Red kicks Ray as he is carrying Krump into the house, Cliff and Lou argue, first over Miss Minny’s interference, then about problems Cliff perceives in the way Lou and her late sister have reared Ray. The argument covers old ground, going back to Miss Minny’s petition to have Lou and Cliff run off Derby Street after they first moved there. Cliff blames it on the fact that he was going to school on the G.I. Bill and “not totin’ a lunch pail like all those other asses.” Lou reminds him that she was working and he was seeing a lot of other women, which added to the neighbors’ feelings. Cliff tries to deny this, then switches the subject to Ray.

When Lou finally says that it was their wine drinking, laughing, and singing that caused the problems, Cliff uses that as an excuse to twist Lou’s arm until she yields to his way of seeing things. They argue about whether Lou is “Ethiopian” or “Hottentot,” then settle down comfortably as the scene shifts to “the Avenue,” where Red, Bama, Lou’s sister Doris, and Ray’s current girl, Bunny Gillette, spar then pair off.

Back on Derby...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In the Wine Time takes a naturalistic approach, presenting a slice of black life in the urban ghetto. The characters are indigenous to this ghetto, street-smart hustlers engaged in aimless activities—casual sex, serious drinking. The major characters are well developed. The language is realistic, slangy, and often scatological; Bullins has been praised by a wide variety of commentators for his ability to capture the language of the street. Both the vivid scenes and strong language are offered without apology.

The use of the radio for background music is realistic, but the blues and the disc jockey’s patter also underscore themes in the play. It’s “one of them [hot] nights fo’ bein’ wit’ the one ya loves,” the disc jockey comments. “Yeah, burnin’ up this evenin’.” As the blues are played, Bullins presents characters whose love stories could be taken from blues songs—the two-timing woman, the man trying to forget the limitations of his life with wine and other women.

In addition to the “blues people,” some have observed that Bullins’s characters have roots in the black oral folk tradition—the trickster and the “bad nigger.” The women characters, while realistically developed, also symbolize various aspects of the dominant black matriarch. Miss Minny is closest to the stereotype, with her reliance on the Christian religion and her efforts to control events in her neighborhood, but Lou also fits the type when she tries to pressure Cliff and Ray to conform to her wishes.

Within this basically naturalistic play, Bullins uses devices that show the influence of expressionism. Ray’s lyrical prologue, which flashes back to the last “wine time,” reveals his inner feelings. Here the language is elevated and the rhythm flowing; it stands in stark contrast to the naturalistic dialogue that follows. In other places, the disjointed dialogue, which illustrates the characters’ inability to communicate, approaches the expressionists’ telegraphic style. The two long speeches that Lou and Cliff deliver simultaneously are like the arias of expressionistic or absurdist plays, reflecting the characters’ inner feelings and demonstrating their lack of connectedness. The fantasy dance sequence in act 2, with its “symbolic castration,” also owes much to expressionism, although it is not as well integrated into the script as are the speeches.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Anderson, Jervis. “Profiles.” The New Yorker 49 (June 16, 1973): 40-44. Presents the complexities of the artist in the context of his personal background, the Black Arts movement, and the New Lafayette Theatre.

Andrews, W. D. E. “Theater of Black Reality: The Black Drama of Ed Bullins.” Southwest Review 65 (1980): 178-190. Asserts that, in contrast to Baraka’s “Messianic” theater, Bullins offers an “Orphic” descent into ghetto depths. Notes that the abstract sense of menace in his plays is like that found in the plays of Harold Pinter.

Bullins, Ed. “An Interview with Ed Bullins: Black Theater.” Interview by Marvin X. Negro Digest 18 (April, 1969): 9-16.

Cook, William. “Mom, Dad, and God: Values in the Black Theatre.” In The Theater of Black Americans, edited by Errol Hill. Vol. 1. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1980. Compares Bullins’ portrayal of family members, especially the father figure, to Lorraine Hansberry’s and James Baldwin’s. Argues that Bullins’ characters do not fear sex or feel religious inhibitions; they celebrate the possibilities in ghetto street life, with a stoic acceptance of those few pleasures that life affords.

DiGaetani, John L. “Ed Bullins.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with...

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