Onstage together or apart, Brandon J. Dirden and Crystal A. Dickinson are one of the contemporary theater’s most talented acting couples. Currently, at Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, Dirden is directing his wife in the rarely seen Alice Childress play Wine in the Wilderness (before he heads back to Broadway in the return of Take Me Out).
Wine is a difficult experience for both of them — it’s a tough play, and neither was sure that the time was right. But diving in head first, Dickinson as leading lady and Dirden as director, has proved more rewarding than they ever imagined.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I came to Alice Childress’s plays late — like many people, the Roundabout revival of Trouble in Mind last year was the first time I’d ever experienced her writing — and it made me feel ashamed that i hadn’t really heard of her before. What is your experience with her work?
Brandon Dirden: I did a production of Trouble in Mind in 2011 at Arena Stage, but before then, I felt just like you. I’d heard of her work as a novelist, and I had friends who would work on her monologues, but I didn’t know much about Alice Childress or her body of work, or how insightful she was. She’s just a radical writer, and it’s so lean and surprisingly funny.
Crystal A. Dickinson: I actually came to Alice Childress in graduate school. We did Wedding Band in one of our scene study classes, and then I found Wine in the Wilderness. Black girls had a hard time looking monologues back when I was in graduate school, so that was one of the first things that spoke to me. I understood it.
I feel like that’s how you come to Alice Childress’s plays in general — in graduate school, through the anthology that Kathy Perkins put out.
Brandon: I met Crystal when we were in school together at the University of Illinois, and Kathy Perkins was our mentor. She was running the lighting department, but I think she was one of two Black faculty members at the time, so she was the mother hen to us. And Kathy is doing the lighting for our production of Wine in the Wilderness here at Two River, so it feels like a full-circle moment. We’re celebrating Alice Childress, but we’re also celebrating the way Kathy has been a guiding force for us, and now for the world, to experience Alice Childress’s plays in the way we have.
Crystal: She knew Ms. Childress very well. They were friends. She gave us a lot of information that was tremendously helpful.
Did Two River come to you with this play, or did you two go to them?
Brandon: This was [artistic director] John Dias. It may surprise you, but it’s not in the wake of the new Alice Childress moment that we’re in. John has been asking me about this play for four years now. They had done Trouble in Mind and John was really hungry to do this play, but it wasn’t really coming together with the urgency John wanted. Now that we’re in this moment, I think the timing is better. There’s a wider appetite to know more about Ms. Childress now. So I’m glad it didn’t come together four years ago.
Crystal: But even when he asked us this time, we weren’t so sure. The language in the play, the ideas in the play, they challenge the viewer. Some of the language is just not things we would say now, and not ideas that we would have. They’re not things that are acceptable today. We told John that we don’t think it’s the right moment, but he kept at us and I’m so glad he did. Because it turned out to be a rich, rich experience.
Crystal, as an actor having first encountered this play in graduate school, what is it like for you to actually sink your teeth into it for a full production?
Crystal: Much harder than I thought.
Brandon: She doesn’t make it look that way.
Crystal: Thanks. What struck me about the play was that, where I’m from, Tommy is like people that I know intimately. When I first encountered it, I was like “Yeah, I can do this.” But I really believe that had I had the chance back then, I don’t think I would’ve known what I was doing. A the end of the play, Tommy has to stand up in herself and say “This is who I am. I can be whatever I want to be and whoever I want to be, and I don’t need anybody to define that.” I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do that as a younger person, but I can do it now. It’s just bringing me such value to stand in my womanhood, and it demands you do that.
And Brandon, what is it like for you to not only have the pressure of directing a play that people don’t see very often, but directing your wife in it?
Brandon: I don’t think I would’ve directed this play if I didn’t have Crystal in this role. This play deserves the best that we can possible give it, and there’s nobody better than Crystal working in the American theater today.
Crystal: That’s nice.
Brandon: It’s just the truth in terms of what this role demands of you. Crystal has a fearlessness and a willingness to explore all of those challenges that it presents, and she has an appetite for the impossible. Crystal was talking about our early hesitancy about this play, and part of the impossibility that I saw was not just the language, but the male-female social dynamics that are involved. How are they going to land on our ears today? The real challenge is, how do we take a piece that was written of its time, and without commenting on it — because you can’t do that either — thread the needle by presenting it in its truth, while still asking an audience to accept it without judging it so hard that you’re going to turn off from the sexual politics. And you just need a charismatic, smart, brilliant actor, and in Crystal, we have that. I think we have a shot at making it work, and hopefully it will be something that Alice Childress would have been proud of.