Wine in the Wilderness

by Alice Childress

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Historical Context

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The Civil Rights EraWine in the Wilderness was written and takes place during the period of American history known as the Civil Rights era. During this period, spanning roughly from the mid-1950s through the mid-1970s, a number of African-American political leaders rose to prominence, working in various ways to create greater opportunities for African Americans. The characters in Childress’s play discuss several of these leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and the politician Adam Clayton Powell.

Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of the Civil Rights Movement and was active in organizing nonviolent protests and speaking out against segregation in the South. Inspired by the non-violent methods put forth by Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi, King worked through an organization known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to stage such events as the famous March on Washington, in 1963. King’s leadership was effective in seeing through important civil rights legislation, such as the comprehensive 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964. King was assassinated in 1968.

Malcolm X was a leader in the movement for black nationalism during the early 1960s. Born Malcolm Little, he converted to the Nation of Islam faith of Black Muslims and changed his name to Malcolm X. Malcolm X became known as a powerful speaker and effective leader in the Nation of Islam movement and was eventually assigned to be the minister at a mosque in Harlem. Malcolm X was critical of the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, Jr., advocating black separatism instead of integration and self-defense through violence rather than nonviolent protest. He was assassinated in 1965 during a rally in Harlem. His life and political views are captured in the much celebrated book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), written by Alex Haley, and Malcolm X.

A lesser known African-American political activist mentioned in Childress’s play is Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a pastor based in Harlem who worked as an elected public official from the 1940s through the 1960s. In 1941, Powell was the first African American to be elected to the New York City Council. In 1945, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, to which he was reelected for eleven terms. Powell was active in working for the passage of some fifty separate liberal legislative acts and bills to support civil rights, end segregation, and promote education and fair labor practices. His political career stumbled in 1967, due to controversy over a private legal battle, and he retired from politics in 1971. He died a year later.

African-American Literature and the Arts
In Wine in the Wilderness, Childress makes reference to a number of prominent African-American writers from the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century. One of the earliest writers mentioned in the play is the African-American author Paul Laurence Dunbar, who published successful collections of poetry and short stories, as well novels, during the 1890s.

Twentieth century African-American literature and the arts have been characterized by two important literary and aesthetic movements: The Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, designates a period during the 1920s in which African-American literature flourished among a group of writers concentrated in Harlem, New York. Childress mentions the prominent Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, known for the collection The Weary Blues (1926), among many other works. The period of incredible literary output known as the Harlem Renaissance diminished when the Depression of the 1930s affected the financial status...

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of many African-American writers.

In Wine in the Wilderness, Bill mentions the author Margaret Walker, whose career spans both the Harlem Renaissance and the era of the Black Arts Movement. Walker was educated during the 1930s and became acquainted with writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as the novelist Richard Wright. She published a celebrated volume of poetry, For My People, in 1942. Her first novel, Jubilee (1966), was published during the era of the Black Arts Movement. Jubilee, based on the life of Walker’s great-grandmother, has been contrasted with the novel Gone With the Wind (1936, by Margaret Mitchell) as a tale of nineteenth century Southern life, from the perspective of several generations of an African-American family which endured slavery.

During the 1960s and 1970s, The Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the Black Aesthetic Movement, emerged, embodying values derived from black nationalism and promoting politically and socially significant works, often written in Black English vernacular. Important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Imamu Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones), who is referred to in Childress’s play familiarly as ‘‘LeRoi.’’ Other important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Literary Style

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The contrast in the speech patterns of the less educated characters with that of the more educated characters is a significant element of the dialogue in this play. The three middle-class characters, Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man, demonstrate their higher level of education through their use of vocabulary and their speech patterns. Tommy and Oldtimer, who are not well-educated, have somewhat different vocabulary and speech patterns. Childress ultimately uses this contrast in speech patterns throughout the dialogue to point out the tensions which arise from class differences within the African-American community. However, Childress is particularly concerned with demonstrating that those who are less educated are equally intelligent and articulate, although their vocabulary and frame of reference may be different from those with degrees. Tommy, for instance, is very intelligent and articulate, despite her lack of education, while Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man are ignorant in many ways, despite their education. Specific points of vocabulary throughout the dialogue are used to demonstrate this contrast and these points. For example, Bill tells Oldtimer that he intends to paint a ‘‘triptych,’’ which is a series of three paintings meant to be viewed together as a series or single unified work. Oldtimer, who does not know what a ‘‘triptych’’ is, asks, ‘‘A what tick?’’

Differences in vocabulary are also demonstrated by the terms used to refer to African Americans. Bill corrects Tommy’s terminology in telling her to use the term Afro-American, which was considered to be the most respectful term among many African Americans during the period in which the play was written. Childress, however, introduces the term as a way of pointing out the hypocrisy among Bill and his friends, who use the proper terminology and yet do not demonstrate actual respect for the ‘‘masses’’ of African Americans, whom they look down on as ignorant and uncultured. Tommy thus uses the term Afro-American ironically, as a means of demonstrating their hypocrisy. Tommy points out that using this term of solidarity covers over various divisions within the African-American community. When Bill corrects her, Tommy responds, ironically, ‘‘Well . . . the Afro-Americans burnt down my house.’’ Childress thus uses differences in vocabulary to point out various internal divisions within the African-American community and the hypocrisy of those who try to deny those divisions simply by using the proper vocabulary.

Throughout the play, Childress makes use of symbolism in order to express her thematic concerns. The central symbol of Wine in the Wilderness is captured in the play’s title, which is also the title of Bill’s ‘‘triptych,’’ as well as the title of the central painting in the triptych. Bill’s image of ‘‘Wine in the Wilderness’’ represents his idealized vision of ‘‘black womanhood.’’ He explains to Oldtimer the origin of this title: ‘‘Once, a long time ago, a poet named Omar told us what a paradise life could be if a man had a loaf of bread, a jug of wine and . . . a woman singing to him in the wilderness.’’ He states that his image of ‘‘perfect black womanhood’’ is ‘‘the woman, she is the bread, she is the wine, she is the singing.’’ In other words, she is ‘‘paradise.’’

Throughout the play, the phrase ‘‘wine in the wilderness’’ refers to an ideal image of ‘‘black womanhood.’’ However, by the end, Tommy comes to recognize within herself an ideal of black womanhood, not an outward ideal of physical beauty or perfection, but a real African-American woman facing everyday life with courage and hope. She explains: ‘‘The real thing is takin’ place on the inside . . . that’s where the action is. That’s ‘Wine in the Wilderness,’ . . . a woman that’s a real one and a good one.’’ By the end of the play, Bill, influenced by Tommy’s words and love and energy, learns to reconceptualize his image of African-American women and his definition of the ‘‘wine in the wilderness.’’ He reconceptualizes the ‘‘wilderness’’ as a metaphor for the harsh conditions faced by African-American women throughout history, particularly slavery and the legacy of slavery. He understands the ‘‘wine’’ as a metaphor for the internal beauty of the countless African-American women who have survived such harsh conditions with courage and hope.

Compare and Contrast

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1960s: In 1965, a major race riot takes place over a period of six days in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California, leaving 34 dead and some 1000 injured. Over the next three years, race riots break out in most of the major cities of the United States. Some of the worst riots are in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, in the summer of 1967. The last of this wave of riots occurs in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.

Today: A race riot takes place in south-central Los Angeles in 1992, resulting in 52 deaths. The rioting is sparked by a court ruling in favor of the white policemen accused of brutally beating African-American motorist Rodney King.

1960s: The Black Arts Movement represents the cutting edge of African-American theater. The Dutchman (1964), by Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones), is an early prominent theatrical production of the Black Arts Movement. Inspired by, and in part an initiator of, the Black Arts Movement, Baraka establishes the Black Repertory Theater in Harlem.

Today: Numerous black theaters have been established throughout the United States, with many mainstream stages also featuring black theatrical productions. A new generation of African-American writers and artists are greatly influenced by the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985), by August Wilson, is the most celebrated play of the 1980s by an African-American writer.

1960s: Prominent African-American political leaders include Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton Powell, as well as Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who founds the revolutionary Black Panther Party in 1966.

Today: Jesse Jackson, a Baptist minister, is one of the most prominent African-American civil rights leaders of the 1980s. Jackson’s voterregistration drive during the 1980s helps lead to the election of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. Louis Farrakhan, the African-American leader of his own sect of the Nation of Islam (also known as the Black Muslims) founded in 1978, also rises to prominence as an influential black leader in the 1980s and 1990s. Oprah Winfrey, although known primarily as a popular daytime TV talk show host and media personality, is arguably the most influential African-American woman in the United States. She is awarded the Woman of Achievement Award from the National Organization for Women in 1986, and the Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People four years in a row (1989–1992).

Media Adaptations

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Wine in the Wilderness was first performed on WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1969, as part of the series ‘‘On Being Black.’’ The state of Alabama banned the broadcast due to the controversial nature of the racial issues it addresses.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Bennett, Susan, ‘‘Alice Childress,’’ in the International Dictionary of Theatre–2: Playwrights, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady and Helen Ottaway, St. James Press, 1993, pp. 191–93.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, ‘‘Black Women Playwrights: Exorcising Myths,’’ in Phylon, Vol. XLVIII, No. 3, Fall 1987, pp. 229–39.

———, ‘‘Images of Blacks in Plays by Black Women,’’ in Phylon, Vol. XLVII, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 230–37.

Childress, Alice, Wine in the Wilderness, in Plays by and about Women, edited by Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch, Random House, 1973, pp. 381–421.

Sullivan, Victoria, and James Hatch, eds., ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Plays by and about Women: An Anthology, Random House, 1973, p. xv.

Further Reading
Andrews, Bert, and Paul Carter Harrison, In the Shadow of the Great White Way: Images from the Black Theatre, Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1989. This photographic history of Black Theater in the United States is comprised of photographs by Andrews and text by Harrison.

Branch, William B., ed., Black Thunder: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama, Penguin Books, 1992. Branch provides a collection of plays by contemporary African-American writers, such as Amiri Baraka and August Wilson.

Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth, Their Place on the Stage: Black Women Playwrights in America, Greenwood Press, 1988. Brown-Guillory offers a historical and critical overview of the role of African-American women playwrights in the history of African-American theater.

———, ed., Wines in the Wilderness: Plays by African- American Women from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, Greenwood Press, 1990. Brown-Guillory has compiled an anthology of plays by African-American women, including Marita Bonner, Georgia Douglass Camp, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Childress.

Jennings, La Vinia Delois, Alice Childress, Twayne, 1995. Jennings offers criticism and interpretation of Childress’s major works.

Lewis, Samella S., African-American Art and Artists, University of California Press, 1994. Lewis provides a historical overview of African- American art, with biographical information on key artists.

McElroy, Guy C., Richard J. Powell, and Sharon F. Patton, African-American Artists, 1880–1987: Selections from the Evans-Tibbs Collection, University of Washington Press, 1989. This book of reprints of African-American art in the twentieth century is drawn from collections of the Smithsonian Institution.

Schoener, Allon, ed., Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900–1968, New Press, 1995. Schoener provides a pictorial history of the arts in Harlem, drawn from collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Williams, Mance, Black Theater in the 1960s and 1970s: A Historical-Critical Analysis of the Movement, Greenwood Press, 1985 (originally published in 1969). Williams provides a historical overview of African- American theater during the period in which Childress’s play was first performed.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide