Wine in the Wilderness

by Alice Childress

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 575

Critics frequently discuss Wine in the Wilderness in terms of Childress’s successful characterization of Tommy as an African-American heroine. Susan Bennett, in the International Dictionary of Theater, notes that Childress’s ‘‘creation of many major female characters’’ is ‘‘perhaps the most significant contribution’’ of her plays.

Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, in ‘‘Images of Blacks in Plays by Black Women,’’ praises Childress as a creator of plausible heroines in her dramatic works, particularly Wine in the Wilderness. She asserts, ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness is the best illustration of Childress’ superb handling of characterization,’’ commenting, ‘‘Childress’ heroines, in general, are at once courageous, discerning, vulnerable, insecure, and optimistic. In short, they are human, real.’’ Brown-Guillory further observes, ‘‘Childress writes largely about poor women for whom the act of living is sheer heroism.’’ She notes that the character of Tommy ‘‘epitomizes the typical heroine who peoples Childress’ plays,’’ in the sense that, ‘‘she steadily moves in the direction of wholeness.’’ Tommy’s triumph over her circumstances is celebrated by Brown-Guillory, who continues, ‘‘Regardless of the fact that her bourgeois acquaintances almost destroy her, Tommy moves to a state of completeness, i.e., develops a positive sense of self.’’

Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch, in their Introduction to Plays by and about Women, also praise Childress for creating a heroine in the character of Tommy:

Tommy has neither money nor recognition, but she has a vitality and a knowledge of what human beings are and should be. She is a grass-roots woman who has survived the rats, the roaches, the riots, and the landlords of Harlem. With Tommy, Ms. Childress has created a strong new black woman character to contrast with the traditional strong ‘‘Mammy’’ type. Bill’s self-serving notion that he is ‘‘better’’ than Tommy not only is defeated but he comes to recognize that her ability to survive is the wine in the wilderness that has enabled the whole black race to survive in America.

In ‘‘Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths,’’ Brown-Guillory compares Wine in the Wilderness to the much celebrated play, for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf (1977), by Ntozake Shange. She explains that the African-American women in both plays

are preoccupied with themselves because they have been disappointed by the men who have come into their lives. These are women who have had their share of ‘‘deferred dreams’’ and are no longer willing to play the role of ‘‘woman-behind-her-man’’ to men who appreciate neither their submissiveness nor their docility. These women rebel and claim that no man is ever going to oppress them again. They are not women who give up on men or feel that all men are insensitive beasts; instead, they are women who have become independent because of their fear of being abused physically and/or emotionally in subsequent relationships.

Brown-Guillory adds that, in both plays, ‘‘emphasis is placed on their ability to survive in a world where they are forced to care for themselves. The evolving black women in these plays fight back after they have been bruised, and they work toward improving their lifestyles.’’

Brown-Guillory, in ‘‘Images of Blacks in Plays by Black Women,’’ opines, ‘‘Captivating drama that exhibits suspense, plausible conflicts, swift repartee, meaningful and well-developed dialogue, Wine in the Wilderness is perhaps Childress’ finest play.’’

Other critics, however, have criticized Childress for using her characters as mouthpieces for putting forth her own political agenda. Some have also criticized her work as anti-male and anti-white.

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Essays and Criticism