The title of Alice Childress’s 1969 play, “Wine in the Wilderness,” now receiving a vibrant staging at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, refers to a sense of repose and joy amidst chaos, an unexpected ray of light in a sea of clouds: a diamond in the rough by any other name.
Although the title grows out of a common refrain in the play’s script accentuating its central theme, it could very well capture the condition of this play: a beautiful and unexpected glass of wine all but concealed and swallowed in the wilderness of theater history.
Without question, Childress is best known for her 1955 classic, “Trouble in Mind,” which was a splash upon its premiere and has enjoyed regional success for decades. It finally had a belated but successful Broadway premiere in the fall of 2021. Two River in fact produced a moving “Trouble in Mind” in 2014.
But ask anybody outside of the most studied American theater history buffs and they would be hard pressed to name a second Alice Childress play.
Often one-hit-wonder artists are that way for a reason: they discover something that strikes a chord with audiences once, but never find that magic again. And often their other work is reasonably consigned to the deep cuts of history, notable mostly as comparative material to the great hit, but not strong enough to stand on its own.
In “Wine and the Wilderness,” however, Two River has unearthed a genuine and unappreciated gem. A short play that travels impressive range through comedy and fun to tense political critique to moments of uplift and joy, the play stands as both wonderful playwrighting and valuable midcentury social commentary. At the show’s center is a boisterous and mesmerizing Crystal Dickinson under the direction of Brandon J. Dirden, a husband-and-wife artistic collaboration that has produced a lovely and warm production.
The play takes place in the Harlem apartment (beautifully designed by Richard H. Morris Jr.) of Bill (Korey Jackson) a painter who considers himself a socially conscious Black man in tune with the struggles and potential of his community. At the moment, however, much of that community is on fire, as Childress sets the play against the backdrop of the 1964 Harlem riots. Bill is sheltered in his apartment when he gets a call from his neighbors, Cynthia (Brittany Bellizeare) and Sonny-Man (Ricardy Fabre), who had been laying low during the riot at a bar. There they met Tommy (Dickinson), who they are convinced is the perfect subject for Bill’s latest portrait project, in which he is trying to capture what he considers to be the highs and lows of Black female beauty and culture.
Tommy, everybody believes, captures the low end: she is boisterous and crass, wears a cheap wig, drinks heavily and is the life of the party precisely because she is unconcerned with impressing anybody. Over the course of the pay, she and Bill will clash about everything from gender and politics to food and language, but in the end, it will be the challenges that Tommy offers to this small social world that leave the most lasting effects.
Jackson succeeds similarly in the demanding role of Dickinson’s counterpart. Bill opens the play so sure of himself and his positions as artist and man, but the unique challenge of Tommy storming into his life forces him into a quick and daunting reevaluation of his many presumptions. Jackson captures his transformation efficiently and impressively.
Rounding out the cast is the always excellent Keith Randolph Smith as Old Timer, an elder community stalwart with simple desires and a warm heart. Unlike Tommy and Bill, Old Timer’s job is precisely not to evolve, but rather to allow those around him to grow to recognize his complex humanity. Smith achieves that humanity deftly.
This play proves a complex, challenging, and fulfilling glass on wine from a bottle that has been buried in the cellar for far too long. Dirden and his team at Two River have uncorked and poured a fine vintage for us all to appreciate.
“Wine in the Wilderness”
Tickets: available online (http://www.tworivertheater.org/). Running through Nov. 6.