Wine in the Wilderness opens during the tail end of a race riot in Harlem. Bill Jameson, an African- American painter, sits in his studio apartment, crouched down below the windows to avoid being hit by stray bullets. His friends, Cynthia and Sonnyman, have called him on the phone from a bar. Because of the riot, they were unable to return home. They have called Bill because, while at the bar, they met a woman they think will be perfect as a model for a painting Bill is planning.
Oldtimer, a man in his sixties, enters Bill’s apartment, carrying a bundle of loot he has taken during the chaos of the riot. The police are looking around the building, and Oldtimer is afraid of being arrested for theft. One of the things he has taken is a bottle of whisky, which he shares with Bill. Bill explains that he is working on a ‘‘triptych,’’ a series of three paintings entitled, ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness.’’ The first painting, ‘‘Black Girlhood,’’ is of ‘‘a charming little girl in Sunday dress and hair ribbon.’’ The second, ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness,’’ is of his idealized vision of ‘‘Mother Africa,’’ a beautiful African-American ‘‘queen,’’ dressed in African fabrics. The third canvas, which he has not yet painted, is to be of an African-American woman Bill considers to be ‘‘lost,’’ down-and-out, what, according to him, ‘‘society has made of our women.’’ Although he hasn’t yet found the model for this third painting, he describes to Oldtimer the type of woman he wants to represent: ‘‘She’s as far from my African queen as a woman can get and still be female, she’s as close to the bottom as you can get without crackin’ up . . . she’s ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude . . . vulgar . . . a poor, dumb chick that’s had her behind kicked until it’s numb.’’ Bill adds that ‘‘there is no hope’’ for this type of woman.
Bill helps Oldtimer to hide his bundle of loot by attaching it to a rope and dangling it outside of the window. Cynthia and Sonny-man enter the apartment with Tommy, a thirty-year-old factory worker whom they met at the bar. They introduce Tommy to Oldtimer and Bill. Tommy thinks that Cynthia and Sonny-man have brought her there because they think Bill will be interested in dating her. She hasn’t been informed that they identified her as Bill’s vision of the down-and-out woman for the third painting of his triptych. But Tommy immediately likes Bill and continues to think that he is interested in asking her out. Tommy is clearly less educated and not as financially comfortable as Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man. She explains that she was unable to return to her apartment because it was burned down in the riot. She is wearing a mismatched outfit of a skirt and sneakers because most of her clothes have been destroyed. Bill tells her that he is interested in painting her, allowing her to think that he wants to do so because he thinks she’s pretty and is interested in dating her. Tommy makes it clear that she is looking for a husband and thinks Bill would be a good man for her. Bill, however, is not at all attracted to Tommy but goes along with this idea because he wants to paint her.
Tommy agrees to sit for Bill’s painting, but only if he goes out to get her a large order of Chinese food, first. While the men are gone getting the food, Cynthia tries to let Tommy down easily, suggesting that Bill really...
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isn’t her type. Cynthia also tells Tommy that she should act more ‘‘feminine,’’ and less hard and assertive, in order to attract a man. The men return and Bill orders everyone except Tommy to leave the apartment. He explains that the Chinese restaurant was destroyed in the riot and he has brought her a hotdog instead. Tommy complains at first but eats the hot dog. When she spills orange soda on her clothing, Bill gives her an African throw-cloth to wrap around herself as a make-shift dress. While she is changing into the throw-cloth, Bill’s art dealer calls, and he discusses his ‘‘triptych,’’ describing the ‘‘finest black woman in the world,’’ which he has painted as ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness.’’ Tommy, meanwhile, thinks that he is describingher. She is happy because she thinks that Bill thinks she is beautiful. But, once she is wearing the African wrap and has removed her wig, Bill for the first time is overcome by how beautiful he finds her. However, he is frustrated because she no longer looks like the down-and-out image he had planned on painting. He gives up trying to draw her, and kisses her instead. They embrace and the lights go down.
The next morning, Bill is taking a bath while Tommy makes coffee in his apartment. They both seem happy. While Bill is still in the bathroom, Oldtimer comes in. Before realizing what he is saying, Oldtimer explains to Tommy about Bill’s triptych. After explaining the first two paintings, he tells Tommy that she will be modeling for the painting of ‘‘the worst gale in town . . . A messed-up chick.’’ Cynthia and Sonny-man walk in, just as Tommy realizes what has been going on. Tommy becomes angry and criticizes Cynthia and Sonnyman for pretending to care about her when they were actually just using her. Bill comes out of the bathroom, and Tommy angrily criticizes him, along with his friends, for their treatment of her. She points out many of the ways in which they are disrespectful to African Americans who have less education and less money than they do. In expressing these things, Tommy comes to see that she herself is the true ‘‘African queen,’’ or ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness,’’ because she is more authentic in her approach to life, while Bill and Cynthia and Sonnyman are hypocritical in their attitudes toward the African-American community. In the midst of these angry words, Tommy blurts out that she loves Bill. It finally dawns on Bill that Tommy really is his ideal ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness’’ African queen. Oldtimer, Cynthia, Sonny-man, and Tommy agree to pose for a new painting, based on Bill’s new vision of his community and the African-American woman.