Wine in the Wilderness

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Wine in the Wilderness












Wine in the Wilderness (1969), by Alice Childress, was first performed on WGBH-TV in Boston, Massachusetts, as part of the series, “On Being Black.”

Wine in the Wilderness takes place during a race riot in Harlem, New York City. Bill Jameson, an artist, is working on a “triptych” entitled “Wine in the Wilderness.” This series of three paintings is meant to express Bill’s “statement” about “black womanhood.” The first painting, of a young black girl, is meant to represent the innocence of childhood. The middle painting is of a beautiful African-American woman in African clothing, meant to represent Bill’s ideal black woman, whom he refers to as an “African queen,” or “the wine in the wilderness.” For the third painting, which he hasn’t yet started, Bill is looking for a down-and-out woman to model for his image of “what society has made of our women.”

Bill’s friends introduce him to Tommy, a woman they’ve met at a bar, whom they think represents the “hopeless” type of woman he has in mind for his third painting. Tommy, however, discovers Bill’s true intention to paint her as representative of a woman who is “ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude, vulgar, poor,” and “dumb.” She angrily criticizes Bill and his friends for thinking that they are better than she is and for looking down on the “masses” of the African-American community who are less educated and less privileged than they. Bill comes to realize that Tommy herself is his true “African queen,” a woman like many in her community. He convinces Tommy to stay so he can paint her portrait as his new vision of African-American womanhood, the “wine in the wilderness.”

In this play, Childress addresses the theme of perceptions of African-American women within the African-American community. Bill and his friends feel that African-American women have dominated African-American men in the past and should learn to be more subservient to the men in their lives. Tommy, on the other hand, argues that women like herself—strong, energetic, yet vulnerable—should not be criticized but should be embraced and celebrated by African-American men and the community as a whole.


Alice Childress was born October 12, 1920, in Charleston, South Carolina. She grew up in Harlem, New York City, where she was raised by her grandmother, the daughter of a former slave. Childress was inspired to write at an early age by her grandmother, who would sit with her at the window and encourage her to make up stories about the people who walked by. Childress attended two years of high school but left before receiving a degree.

In 1941, Childress joined the American Negro Theater, in Harlem, where she worked as an actress, playwright, and director for the next twelve years. Florence (1949), her first play to be produced, centers on a discussion between an African-American woman and a white woman who happen to meet in a railroad station in the South. Her Gold Through the Trees (1952) was the first play by an African-American woman to be professionally produced on the American stage. Her play Trouble in Mind (1955), about the difficulties faced by black actors, won the 1956 Obie Award for the Best Original Off-Broadway Play, making Childress the first female playwright ever to have won an Obie. Wedding Band (1966), her play about interracial marriage, set in South Carolina in 1918, was controversial, and the television broadcast was banned by a number of stations. Wine in the Wilderness (1969), also a controversial work, addresses issues of socioeconomic and gender conflict within the African-American community.

Childress is most widely known for her 1973 novel, A Hero Ain ’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich, written for a young adult readership, about a young drugaddict. The novel was widely acclaimed for its power and realism and was named one of the Outstanding Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. But it was also controversial and was banned by the Long Island school district as obscene. In 1978, a movie adaptation of Hero, the screenplay written by Childress, was released by New World Pictures. Her last published work, Those Other People (1989), is a young adult novel about a boy coming to terms with his homosexuality.

In 1957, Childress married Nathan Woodward, her second husband, a musician who composed music for many of her plays. She had one daughter from her first marriage. Childress died of cancer August 14, 1994, in New York City.


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 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 describing her. 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 Sonny-man 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 Sonny-man 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.



Cynthia is a twenty-five-year-old social worker. She is married to Sonny-man. Cynthia is a middleclass, educated, African-American woman, whose attitude toward Tommy, like that of Bill and Sonny-man, is arrogant and patronizing. She and Sonny-man meet Tommy in a bar, where they recognize her as the image of a down-and-out woman Bill is looking to paint. They take Tommy to Bill’s apartment without explaining why and allow her to believe that she is being set up with Bill as a romantic interest. Thus, although she and Tommy are both African-American women, Cynthia demonstrates a lack of respect for Tommy, allowing her to be used by a man whose attitude toward her is insulting.

When the men leave, Cynthia and Tommy have a discussion that demonstrates Cynthia’s ideas about how African-American women should behave in their relationships with men. She tells Tommy that she is too coarse and unfeminine and that she should allow men to have the upper hand in her relationships with them. Cynthia also criticizes Tommy for wearing a wig, instead of showing her natural hair. But, as Tommy later points out, the reason she wears a wig is that women like Cynthia make her feel ashamed of being her “natural” self. Cynthia also tells Tommy, “You have to let the black man have his manhood again,” to which Tommy responds, “I didn’t take it from him, how I’m gonna give it back?” Cynthia represents Childress’s vision of the attitude of some educated, middle-class African-American women toward African-American women who are less educated and less privileged than they.

Bill Jameson

Bill Jameson is a thirty-three-year-old artist. He lives in an apartment in Harlem. Bill is working on a “triptych,” or series of three paintings, to represent his “statement” on “black womanhood”: “Black girlhood,” an image of innocence and sweetness; “Wine in the Wilderness,” his vision of an idealized “African queen” and a third image, not yet painted, which represents his perception of “what society has done to our women.” For this third picture, which he envisions as a down-and-out African-American woman who is “ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude... vulgar... a poor, dumb chick that’s had her behind kicked until it’s numb,” and for whom “there’s no hope.”

Bill has been looking for a woman to model for this picture, and during a race riot in Harlem, Bill’s friends bring to his apartment a woman they see as an embodiment of this third image. Bill quickly sees in Tommy this down-and-out, “hopeless chick” he had in mind. He convinces her to allow him to paint her only because she believes he is interested in her for romantic reasons. The next morning, however, Tommy discovers Bill’s true intentions and becomes enraged. She realizes that Bill looks down on her for being less educated and less privileged than he and accuses him of looking down upon the “masses” of the African-American community, although he claims to represent the community through his art. Bill is defensive at first, but, when Tommy blurts out that she loves him, he is moved by this revelation to gain new insight into his art and his vision of African-American womanhood. He realizes that he has been misguided in his approach to art and his attitude toward the African-American community, that he has been “painting in the dark, all head and no heart.” Bill finally understands that Tommy herself represents his ideal vision of the African-American woman, his “Wine in the Wilderness.” He convinces her to stay and pose for a painting to represent her in this new light.

Tommorrow Marie

See Tommy

Edmond Lorenzo Matthews

See Oldtimer


Oldtimer, in his sixties, is described as “an old roustabout character.” He seems to be an alcoholic without much money, who often mooches off of his neighbors, although he is also friends with them. In the midst of the riot, Oldtimer enters Bill’s apartment with a bundle of loot he claims to have picked up from the street after it was dropped by the rioters. His bundle includes a bottle of whiskey, some salami, and a new suit. He is anxious because the police are looking around in the building, and he is afraid of getting arrested for stealing. Bill reluctantly helps him to hide the bundle, and the two share the bottle of whiskey. Oldtimer is a warmhearted, good-humored man who is clearly much less educated than Bill. Bill explains his series of paintings to Oldtimer as they drink.

When Tommy is brought into the apartment and introduced to Oldtimer, she surprises everyone by asking his real name. Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man realize that they don’t even know their friend’s name. He tells them his name is Edmond Lorenzo Matthews. The fact that they didn’t know his name, although they’ve clearly known him for some time, indicates the lack of respect these middle-class, educated people have for one of their elders. Tommy later criticizes them for not showing him more respect. Oldtimer likes Tommy right away and is flattered when she flirts with him. The next day, Oldtimer comes into the apartment and, without thinking about what he is saying, reveals to Tommy that Bill wants to paint her as an image of “the worst gal in town.” He is immediately sorry for saying it, but Tommy is glad to have been told the truth about what Bill thinks of her.

By the end of the play, Tommy helps Bill to gain more respect for Oldtimer as representative of a different generation of African-American men who were given little opportunity for education or financial gain. Bill points out, “Now there’s Old-timer, the guy who was here before there were scholarships and grants and stuff like that, the guy they kept outta the schools, the man the factories wouldn’t hire, the union wouldn’t let him join.”


Sonny-man is a twenty-seven-year-old writer. He is married to Cynthia. Sonny-man wears a dashiki, an African-style shirt, in style during the 1960s and 1970s, which represents a celebration of African heritage. During the riot, he and Cynthia meet Tommy at a bar and recognize her as the image of a down-and-out woman Bill envisions for his third painting. They bring Tommy to Bill’s apartment without explaining to her what Bill has in mind.

Like Cynthia and Bill, Sonny-man represents the arrogant and condescending attitude some middle-class, educated people hold for those less privileged than they. Like Bill, Sonny-man sees himself


  • 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.

as a creative person working for the good of the African-American community as a whole; he intends to “write the revolution into a novel nine hundred pages long.” But his attitude toward Tommy and Oldtimer betrays the fact that he looks down on the “masses” of the African-American community.


Tommy is a thirty-year-old woman who works in a dress factory. She lives in an apartment over a store that has been burned in the riot. She has not been allowed back into her apartment and has lost most of her clothing and the money she was saving. Cynthia and Sonny-man meet her in a bar during the riot and bring her up to Bill’s apartment because they have identified her as the type of woman he wants to paint for the third part of his “triptych.” Tommy thinks they are trying to set her up with Bill as a romantic interest and has no idea how they really see her. She likes Bill right away and continues to believe that he has taken a romantic interest in her. Tommy is very intelligent, articulate, and witty but is much less educated than Bill and his friends. She finally agrees to sit for Bill’s painting if he will buy her something to eat. While eating, she accidentally spills soda on her clothing, and he gives her an African throw-cloth to wear as a makeshift dress. While she is changing, she overhears Bill on the telephone talking to an art dealer about his picture of “Mother Africa”—Tommy does not see that he is talking about a painting and thinks that he is talking about how beautiful he thinks she is. When Bill sees Tommy in the African wrap without her wig, he is mesmerized by how beautiful she now looks to him. He and Tommy kiss.

The next morning, Tommy is happily making coffee while Bill takes a bath. Oldtimer comes in and reveals to Tommy that Bill intends to paint her as an image of “the worst chick in town.” Tommy, hurt and angry, criticizes Bill and his friends (not including Oldtimer) for looking down on her and the “masses” of the African-American community, who are not as educated or privileged as they. Through her anger, Tommy comes to appreciate herself for the woman that she is, in spite of their degrading attitude toward her. However, she blurts out that she loves Bill, which moves him to realize that she is right in her criticisms. He realizes that Tommy in fact represents his ideal African-American woman, his “Wine in the Wilderness.” He convinces Tommy to stay and pose for his new painting.


Classism within the African-American Community

A central theme of Wine in the Wilderness is the issue of socioeconomic class divisions within the African-American community. Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man are educated, middle-class professionals; Cynthia is a social worker, Bill is an artist, and Sonny-man is a writer. Oldtimer and Tommy, on the other hand, are underprivileged and not well-educated; Tommy works in a factory, while Old-timer seems to be unemployed. One of the primary tensions of the play is that caused by the class divisions between these two sets of characters. The middle-class characters look down on the working-class characters, pretending to befriend them while showing them little respect. They do not even have enough respect for Oldtimer, their elder, to ever have asked his real name. The entire plot revolves around their plan to use Tommy as a model for Bill’s painting of “the worst chick in town.”

Bill is generally condescending toward Tommy, holding his higher education and bookish knowledge of history and literature over her. He corrects her manner of speaking and treats her as if she were completely ignorant. Tommy becomes slightly aware of this class tension when she asks Cynthia if she is not good enough for Bill. However, it is not until Tommy learns of Bill’s real perception of her as “the worst gal in town” that she finally sees clearly how much he and his friends look down on her. Tommy accurately accuses them of looking down on the “masses” of African-Americans, who are not as educated or as privileged as they. Tommy even points out that Bill looks down on his own parents, who worked hard in order to own a home and provide him with greater opportunities. Tommy further accuses Bill of claiming to “love” African-American culture, while he in fact despises the actual African-American people he sees on the street every day. By the end of the play, Bill learns from Tommy to overcome his attitude of class snobbery toward other members of his community.

African-American Womanhood

Another central theme of Wine in the Wilderness is African-American womanhood. Bill intends his series of three paintings to represent his “statement” on “black womanhood.” Through his first painting, “Black girlhood,” Bill expresses his view of African-American girls as innocent and pure. In the second painting, “Wine in the Wilderness,” he depicts his idealized image of “perfect black womanhood,” as a stylish, physically beautiful woman in Afro-centric clothing and accessories. This image betrays Bill’s idealized vision of “black womanhood” as a sexual fantasy resembling an image in a fashion magazine, rather than a real woman engaging in the struggles and joys of everyday life.

Bill’s unpainted third image represents a view of the average African-American woman as down-and-out and “hopeless.” At this point, Bill’s view of “black womanhood” is very insulting toward African-American women in general, as he expresses disdain for women who work and struggle and live and love on a day-to-day basis, mostly without the benefit of financial comfort or opportunity for higher education. Bill is critical of the “masses” of African-American women like Tommy, whom he views as “ignorant, unfeminine, coarse,” and “rude.” He perceives these women as dominating African-American men, and tells Tommy, “the Matriarchy gotta go.” Cynthia, too, although an African-American woman, expresses a similar attitude toward women like Tommy. She instructs Tommy to be more subservient toward men and advises her to allow men to have the upper hand. Cynthia expresses the opinion that African-American women have somehow robbed African-American men of their masculinity. She tells Tommy, “You have to let the black man have his manhood again,” to which Tommy responds, “I didn’t take it from him, how I’m gonna give it back?”


  • In this play, Childress refers to a number of different African-American leaders in politics and culture. Pick one of these figures and learn more about her or him. Write a biographical sketch of this figure. What contribution did she or he make to African-American history and culture? What obstacles did he or she overcome in order to accomplish her/his goals? In what ways can you consider this person a role model for your own life? The figures mentioned in the play include: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman; Malcolm X; Muhammad Ali; Paul Laurence Dunbar; LeRoi Jones (also known as Amiri Baraka); and Margaret Walker.
  • Wine in the Wilderness takes place in Harlem during a race riot. There have been a number of race riots in the United States, such as: the riots in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866; Springfield, Illinois in 1908; East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1917; Chicago in 1919; and Detroit in 1943. Learn more about the history of one of these riots. What immediate events sparked the riot? How did it get started? How did the police and government forces respond to the riot? What was the outcome of the riot (How long did it last? How many people were killed? How many injured? What was the extent of property damage? etc.)? What broader political and social concerns were being protested or expressed by the riot? How could these concerns have been addressed through effective, nonviolent action? What, if any, social or political changes took place in the aftermath of the riot?
  • Pick a five to ten page segment from Wine in the Wilderness to perform as a group. In what ways does your performance of this scene help you to gain a better understanding of the character you are performing and her or his motivation? How does this insight help you to gain a better understanding of the major themes of the play? In what ways is the message of the play more effective when acted out as a dramatic scene?
  • In this play, an artist paints a “triptych” (series of three paintings unified by a common theme) in order to express a social and political vision of the status of African-American women. Draw or paint your “triptych,” expressive of your own concerns about a particular social or political issue. In what ways is this series of images an effective means of communicating your ideas, thoughts, and feelings about this issue?
  • This play addresses the issue of relations between African-American men and women, touching on specific tensions, concerns, and points of harmony in male-female relationships. Write a theatrical scene expressing your own ideas and concerns about romantic relationships in your community or peer-group. With a group of students, act out the scene you have written. Discuss the ideas expressed through this dramatic expression of your concerns.
  • In Wine in the Wilderness, Childress addresses the issue of how African-American women are represented in art. These concerns can also be addressed in terms of other forms of visual media, such as film, television, and fashion magazines. Pick a film, television show, or magazine that includes images of African-American women. You may also find a painting representing African-American women in a museum near you, or in an art book. How does this visual representation fit into the artist’s conception of African-American women as described in the play? In what ways is this image a positive representation of African-American women? In what ways is it a negative or stereotyped representation of African-American women? Write an essay or report based on your observations; if possible, include the images you are discussing with your project.

By the end of the play, Bill realizes that he has been misguided in perceiving the “masses” of African-American women in such a negative light. He realizes that everyday women like Tommy are “the real beautiful people.” Through the character of Tommy, Childress criticizes those African-American men who blame African-American women for the oppression they suffer in a white-dominated society. By contrast, Childress celebrates women like Tommy, who work and struggle through everyday life, as an ideal image of “black womanhood.”



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.


The Civil Rights Era

Wine 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 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


  • 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 voter-registration 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).

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.


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.


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses the use of humor in Childress’s play.

Wine in the Wilderness is subtitled “A Comedy-Drama.” Throughout the play, Childress utilizes the element of comedy to highlight her central thematic concerns, such as the nature of political and social action, male-female relationships, and class divisions within the African-American community. Although Childress is quite serious about these concerns, she makes use of humor both for its entertainment value and as a means of accenting these themes in a light-hearted manner.

One element of humor in Wine in the Wilderness centers around the characters’ ironic commentary on the riot, which has been raging around them, and which has now abated. Bill, in particular, is presented as emotionally and mentally removed from the physical violence of the riot. In the opening

scene of the play, Bill is calmly sketching a picture while dodging the bullets that are flying all around him. The stage directions read:

Bill is seated on the floor with his back to the wall, drawing on a large sketch pad with charcoal pencil. He is very absorbed in his task but flinches as he hears the bullet sound, ducks and shields his head with upraised hand,... then resumes sketching.

This scene demonstrates Bill’s removed attitude toward the real struggles going on in his community—he prefers to retreat into the abstractness of his art, rather than to engage in the flesh-and-blood realities of life in Harlem. Bill is thus presented as disengaged from the physical reality of the riot and, symbolically, the community in which he lives and which he claims to represent through his art.

Bill makes light of the riot at several points throughout the play. This attitude of not taking the riot seriously is expressed when his friend Sonny-man calls from a bar. He answers the phone cautiously, so as to avoid being caught by a stray bullet and, when he learns that Sonny-man and Cynthia have not been killed in the riot, makes a lighthearted joke of the matter: “Thought yall was dead. I’m sittin’ here drawin’ a picture in your memory. In a bar? Yall sittin’ in a bar? See there, you done blew the picture that’s in your memory.” When his art dealer calls, Bill picks up the phone saying, “Hello, survivor of a riot speaking.” These comments indicate the extent to which Bill is unsympathetic to the real personal loss and tragedy that can occur as a result of a riot—such as Tommy losing her home, clothes, and money, and Richard Lee losing his restaurant.

Bill also provides ironic commentary on the dubious effectiveness of the riot as a means of bringing about social and political “revolution.” Tommy sends him out to buy Chinese food, but he comes back with a hotdog instead, explaining, “No Chinese restaurant left, baby! It’s wiped out. Gone with the revolution.” Bill is clearly cynical about the effectiveness of such a “revolution,” which results only in such acts of destruction as the burning down of a neighborhood restaurant. Both Bill and Sonny-man share the attitude that social and political change, a.k.a., “the revolution,” is best enacted through art. Bill comments, “The revolution is here. Whatta you do with her? You paint her!” To which Sonny-man, a writer, adds, “You write her... you write the revolution. I’m gonna write the revolution into a novel nine hundred pages long.”

Toward the end of the play, Tommy accuses Bill of celebrating the African-American community in the abstract, while actually despising the real, flesh-and-blood people among whom he lives.

If a black somebody is in a history book, or printed on a pitcher, or drawed on a paintin’... or if they’re a statue,... dead, and outtta the way, and can’t talk back, then you dig ’em and full-a so much-a damn admiration and talk ’bout “our” history. But when you run into us livin’ and breakin’ ones, with the life’s blood still pumpin’ through us,... then you comin’ on ’bout how we ain’ never together. You hate us, that’s what! You hate black me!

Tommy’s point here echoes back to Bill’s attitude in the opening of the play, in which he ironically expresses disappointment that his friends are still alive, rather than being killed in the riot, because, as he tells them, “See there, you done blew the picture that’s in your memory.” Bill is more comfortable creating representations of people through his art than interacting with real, live people with “life’s blood still pumpin’ through us.” Bill’s state of obliviousness to the reality of the riot is thus symbolic of his removed attitude toward the reality of the lives of the “masses” of African Americans,


who are not as privileged as he. This contrast is made concrete by the idea of a riot as a form of protest against racial oppression that is expressed through physical violence, whereas Bill prefers the abstractness of art as a means of making a “statement” about African-American culture.

Childress also employs humor in fleshing out the character of Tommy. Tommy’s sense of humor, which the other characters often appreciate, is important as an element of her personal charm—an indication of her lively, quick-witted mind, as well as being a part of what makes her a unique and attractive personality. Tommy’s losses as a result of the riot have been much more serious than those of any other character in the play—her apartment has been burned with most of her clothing and all of her savings, as well as her other belongings. And yet, Tommy finds humor and joy in interacting with other people, despite the “tragedy” that the riot has visited upon her. Sonny-man tells Bill, “She was breakin’ up everybody in the bar... had us all laughin’... crackin’ us up. In the middle of a riot... she’s gassin’ everybody!” At Bill’s apartment, Tommy, who is enjoying the company, comments, “Ain’t this a shame! That riot done wipe me out and I’m sittin’ here havin’ me a ball.” Tommy’s resilient spirit despite her recent loss is representative of the spirit of countless African-American women throughout history, who have survived harsh, tragic lives and yet maintained a zest for life. Only at the end of the play does Bill come to understand the “beauty” of African-American women such as Tommy, who “came through the biggest riot of all... somethin’ called ‘Slavery,’ and she’s even comin’ through the ‘now’ scene...”

Tommy’s sense of humor, to some extent, is based on the very qualities which Bill claims to despise in women. Bill’s description of “the worst chick in town” includes the idea that she is “crude” and “vulgar.” Yet Tommy causes “general laughter” among the other characters by talking about the “corn” on her foot—a topic some might consider “crude” or “vulgar” conversation material among mixed company that one has just met. When Old-timer gives her a chair to sit down, Tommy comments, “Bet you can tell my feet hurt. I got one corn...and that one is enough.” She adds, “Oh, it’ll ask you for somethin’.” When she becomes suspicious that perhaps Bill has a wife or girlfriend lurking around, listening in on the conversation, Tommy intentionally speaks loudly to insist that she is not trying to steal anyone’s man away from another woman. She pointedly states, “I’m innocent. Don’t wanta get shot at or jumped on. Cause I wasn’t doin’ a thing but mindin’ my own business!”—the stage directions indicate that Tommy says this “in loud tone to be heard in other rooms.” Clearly, Tommy has been in situations before in which she found herself in the home of a man whose jealous wife or girlfriend threatened her with violence. Tommy’s open expression of concern that she may be “shot at or jumped on” by another woman indicates her lack of social sophistication, in comparison to Bill, Cynthia, and Sonny-man.

Although some of Tommy’s humor is intentional, some of her comments and questions that add a comic element to the play are based on her ignorance of Bill’s cultural milieu. A number of humorous points in the dialogue of this play occur at moments in which Tommy misunderstands Bill’s meaning, particularly when it comes to aspects of his educated, intellectual, privileged lifestyle. After being introduced to Tommy, Bill offers her a drink. When she asks for wine, Bill assumes that Tommy is a “wine-o,” an alcoholic. Bill’s assumption betrays his attitude toward Tommy as a woman who is hopeless and at the bottom of the social ladder. Tommy, however, immediately points out that he is the one who keeps wine in his house. Bill then explains that he only uses the wine for cooking, to which Tommy responds, “You like to get loaded while you cook?” Bill of course meant that he keeps the wine to use as an ingredient in some recipes, but Tommy, it seems, is unfamiliar with the type of gourmet cooking that may call for wine. Thus, while Bill looks down on Tommy and assumes that she is a “wine-o,” Tommy turns the tables on him, suggesting that he is the “wine-o.”

Tommy also makes a humorous commentary on Bill’s half-finished attempt at remodeling his apartment, originally a low-income tenement, to look like a stylish studio space. The set directions explain that Bill has “broken out walls and is half finished with a redecorating job. The place is now only partly reminiscent of its past tawdry days, plaster broken away and lathing exposed right next to a new brick-faced portion of wall.” Tommy is clearly not familiar with the stylish type of redecorating done by professional, privileged people such as Bill, who move into formerly low-rent districts in order to transform them into classy living quarters. To Tommy, it looks like Bill’s apartment has merely been torn apart in the riot. After pointing out that her own apartment was burned by rioters from within her own community—“the Afro-Americans burnt down my house”—Tommy looks around Bill’s apartment, commenting, “Looks like the Afro-Americans got to you too.” Tommy’s comment ironically points out to Bill that his abstract ideas about the black community as a unified group (the “Afro-Americans”) are far from accurate, since it was “the Afro-Americans” who have destroyed her home and her belongings—as well as those of many others within the community.

Tommy also makes humorous comments to point out Cynthia’s class snobbery toward women who have less money and education than she. When the men leave, Cynthia criticizes Tommy for wearing a wig, insisting that Tommy’s “natural” hair must be “just as nice or nicer” than the wig. Tommy retorts, “It oughta be. I only paid nineteen ninety five for this.” Tommy later mocks Cynthia’s criticism of the wig, bitterly pointing out that women like Cynthia only make things worse for women like Tommy: ’“Do you have to wear a wig?’ Yes! To soften the blow when y’all go up side-a my head with a baseball bat.”

Childress makes use of humor in this play to emphasize specific themes. In depicting Bill’s disengaged and critical attitude about the riot, she raises the issue of the relative merit of artistic expression in comparison to violent action in struggling against racial oppression. Through the character of Tommy—whose sense of humor demonstrates her resilient spirit (despite her tragic circumstances), her intelligence (despite a lack of education), her charm (despite her lack of refinement or sophistication), and her biting commentary on the divisiveness which exists within the African-American community—Childress offers a critical assessment of relationships between African-American men and women, class divisions within the African-American community, and the effectiveness of either violence or art as a means of political action.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Wine in the Wilderness, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

La Vinia Delois Jennings

In the following essay on Wine in the Wilderness, the author discusses the idea of the play’s protagonist as the “true Africentrist” in the midst of the intersections of class, race, and gender.

In Wine in the Wilderness, Childress makes the point that the intersections of “sexism, racism, and classism are immutably connected to black women’s oppression while making it crystal clear that black women triumph because of a strong spirit of survival inextricably linked to an African heritage.” Enlisting the background of a Harlem riot as a controlling metaphor for communal and intraracial fragmentation, Childress foregrounds the underclass, undereducated heroine of Wine in the Wilderness as the true Africentrist, proud of blacks and her blackness. She stands in stark relief to bourgeois, intellectual blacks whose white assimilationist and classist values expose their racial disingenuousness. Espousing the in-vogue black power rhetoric of brotherhood, liberation, and nationalism, the middle-class antagonists of the play accessorize themselves with the trappings of African culture—the dashiki, the Afro hairstyle, and African objets d’art. But they relegate the black woman in the black movement to the same position assigned her by real-life activists like Stokely Carmichael: “prone.”

The play’s gender conflict exposes the black consciousness movement’s ambition to establish a black male hegemony that replicated the gender and class biases of white patriarchy. The female protagonist of Wine in the Wilderness refutes the accusation that she is the product of a matriarchal society that has appropriated the manhood of the black male. Resistant to exploitation by pretentious middle-class blacks, she rejects the sexist prescriptions of passivity submissiveness, voicelessness, and domesticity. An African ancestral connectedness, which the other black characters have failed to cultivate or have lost, enables her to resurrect a guiding, affirming blackness in the middle-class blacks she encounters. As Elizabeth Brown-Guillory posits, the female protagonist of Wine in the Wilderness is “a


very spiritual and spirited woman,” who “rises to serve as a healer to her wounded community whose psyche is in need of re-Africanization.”

Childress situates the action of Wine in the Wilderness at the conclusion of a Harlem riot during the summer of 1964. Waiting out the storm of street violence in his apartment, Bill Jameson, a 33-year-old painter, receives a telephone call from his neighbors Sonny-man, a writer, and Sonny-man’s wife, Cynthia, a social worker. They announce that they have found the perfect model for Bill’s work-in-progress, the third panel of a triptych dedicated to the theme of black womanhood.

Before they arrive, Bill describes the triptych to Oldtimer, a homeless man, who drops by with loot picked up off the street. The first panel, titled “Black Girlhood,” depicts innocence—“a charming little girl in Sunday dress and hair ribbon.” The second reveals “a beautiful woman” with “deep mahogany complexion” who is “cold but utter perfection, draped in startling colors of African material.” She is, Bill states, ‘“Wine in the Wilderness’”... Mother Africa, regal, black womanhood in her noblest form.” He explains that the third canvas, now blank, will contain the image of “the kinda chick that is grass roots,... no,... underneath the grass. The lost woman,... what the society has made out of our women. She’s as far from my African queen as a woman can get and still be female. She’s ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude... vulgar... there’s no hope for her.... If you had to sum her up in one word it would be nothin’!”

Wearing a wig and mismatched skirt and sweater, 30-year-old Tomorrow Marie Fields, called Tommy, arrives with Sonny-man and Cynthia under the impression that the two are trying to match her up romantically with Bill. Lacking the sophistication and college education of the others, Tommy, an eighth-grade dropout, is unpretentious, good-natured, and polite. When the men leave to get the Chinese food Bill promises Tommy in exchange for posing, Tommy shares with Cynthia her attraction to Bill. Cynthia attempts to discourage Tommy’s affection, warning that Bill’s art comes first and that she should not put her trust in men. Tommy, however, understands Cynthia’s true message, that she is “aimin’ too high by looking at Bill.”

Seeking honesty, she asks Cynthia to tell her why men like Bill fail to find her attractive. Cynthia explains, stating “You’re too brash. You’re too used to looking out for yourself. It makes us lose our femininity.... It makes us hard.... You have to let the black man have his manhood again. You have to give it back, Tommy.... Don’t chase him.... Let him pursue you.... Let him do the talking. Learn to listen. Stay in the background a little. Ask his opinion... ’What do you think, Bill?’... What we need is a little more sex appeal.” Wearing an Afro herself, she recommends that Tommy not wear a wig. The conversation between the women terminates with the return of the men. Oldtimer, Cynthia, and Sonny-man leave so that Bill can commence painting.

Admitting her ignorance about books, Tommy encourages Bill to share his knowledge of black history. In between his elaborations on Frederick Douglass and Monroe Trotter, he criticizes black women in general and Tommy in particular. Uncomfortable about her shabby clothing, Tommy suggests that he paint her another time. His insistence that she keep on the wig for the portrait vexes her, and she accidentally spills orange drink on herself. Perturbed by her clumsiness, Bill gives her an African wrap in which to change while he talks on the phone.

Tommy overhears Bill describing to the caller the ebony queen of the “Wine in the Wilderness” panel and mistakenly thinks he is describing her. “You just make sure your exhibition room is big enough to hold the crowds that’s gonna congregate to see this fine chick I got here.... an ebony queen of the universe.... but best of all and most important.... She’s tomorrow... she’s my tomorrow,” he states. Feeling valued and possibly loved, Tommy, sans wig, emerges relaxed, confident, and beautifully draped. She sits on the model stand, reciting bits of her family history as conversation. Astonished by her radical physical transformation, Bill is strongly attracted to this Tommy. Unable to reconcile her present appearance with the earlier one, he loses his incentive to paint. The two grow closer, embrace, kiss, and ultimately spend the night together.

The next morning, an elated Tommy is deflated and angered when Oldtimer returns and inadvertently reveals that she is not the African queen but the “messed-up chick” of the triptych. Sonny-man and Cynthia arrive shortly thereafter, and Tommy denounces them all, accusing them of spouting problack rhetoric when in actuality they obviously despise “flesh and blood niggers,” as evidenced by their classist, sexist, and deceptive treatment of her. Bill’s consciousness is slow to be raised, but her insight takes the artist beyond his limited perception, inspiring him to begin the triptych anew. The “chick” of the old triptych, “a dream I drummed up outta the junk room of my mind,” was painted “in the dark” with “all head and no heart. I couldn’t see until you came,” Bill pleads.

The first panel of the re-visioned triptych will depict Oldtimer as emblematic of the black man’s past, when he was denied access to education, unions, and factory work. The second panel will contain Sonny-man and Cynthia, representative of the “Young Man and Woman working together to do our thing.” Bill persuades Tommy to pose for the center panel, the woman of the future, the “Wine in the Wilderness” woman, who has come “through the biggest riot of all,... somethin’ called ’Slavery,’ and she’s even comin’ through the ‘now’ scene.” As the black woman whose identity is clearly etched as survivor, Tommy will be the inspiration for the black men and women of tomorrow.

Cultural Symbol versus Cultural Substance

The setting of the play, Bill Jameson’s partially renovated Harlem apartment, is conspicuously dominated by cultural iconography. African sculpture, wall hangings, paintings, and books on African American history signify the occupant’s fashionable but vacuous preoccupation with African artifacts. An array of multicultural icons—a Chinese Buddha incense-burner, a Native American feather war helmet, a West Indian travel poster, a Mexican serape, and a Japanese fan—further objectifies Bill’s vapid efforts to proclaim a political kinship with other oppressed people of color. He cannot sympathetically or psychically relate to those other cultures represented in his apartment, however, because he has failed to connect wholly with his own.

A creation of elitist, black, middle-class culture in imitation of white patriarchy, Bill is more concerned with cultural symbols than with cultural substance. The most telling indicator of his cultural insubstantiality is the exotic cluster of African symbols and associations he attaches to his vision of “Wine in the Wilderness,” perfect black womanhood. The exotic “cold” image of the ebony queen of the universe, of the “Sudan, the Congo River, the Egyptian Pyramids,” in essence Mother Africa who “has come through everything that has been put on her,” bears no resemblance to flesh and blood African and African American women who have actually withstood the trials and tribulations of daily struggle and survival. His “gorgeous satin chick,” whom every man would “most like to meet on a desert island, or around the corner from anywhere,” panders to male fantasy.

Bill’s misguided vision of “Wine in the Wilderness” is the Madison Avenue paradigm of physical female beauty, only in blackface. His queen is the slick, air-brushed, glamorized, ornamental woman who mutely stares from billboards and magazine advertisements. With her blackness defamiliarized in a traditional white imaging of beauty, she propagates the ideology of whiteness, not blackness. Antithetical to the struggling black woman in America, the woman on the canvas is nothing but accessories—“startling colors of African material” and “golden headdress sparkling with brilliants and sequins... [s]omethin’ you add on or take off.” Flawless in appearance and conceptualization, Bill’s “Wine in the Wilderness” has no grounding in reality.

Mainstream Assimilation

Because of their assimilation of mainstream values, Bill and his neighbors, Sonny-man and Cynthia, more concerned with black symbols, black discourse, and blackness in the abstract than in the concrete, disassociate themselves from blacks of lower socioeconomic status. Their classist disrespect for Oldtimer, who represents age, experience, and their ancestral past, exemplifies their detachment. In all the time they have known Oldtimer, never have they been genuinely interested enough to ask him his real name. His serving as their court fool and as an up-close example of how politically untogether poor, uneducated blacks can be, has militated against their recognition of his personhood. Similarly, the trio is interested in Tommy for her symbolic value, not for her real self. Voicing both class and regional bias, they view her as “the kinda woman that grates on your damn nerves... back-country... right outta the wilds of Mississippi,” though she was born and reared in Harlem. Since she “ain’t fit for nothin’” and “there’s no hope for her,” political enlightenment and social empowerment are, theoretically, wasted on her. The only sensible response from privileged, enlightened blacks like themselves is “to... just pass her by.”

Living in Harlem, a mecca of blackness, yet not identifying with their black sisters and brothers on the street, has severed the middle-class blacks of the play from their racial roots. Tommy forces them to face their intraracial bigotry and their illusion that they are different from “the black masses” when she comprehends that they see her as inferior:

Sonny-Man: The sister is upset.

Tommy: And you stop callin’ me “the” sister,... if you feelin’ so brotherly why don’t you say “my” sister? Ain’t no we-ness in your talk. “The” Afro-American, “the” black man, there’s no we-ness in you. Who you think you are?

Sonny-Man: I was talkin’ in general er... my sister, ’bout the masses.

Tommy: There he go again. “The” masses. Tryin’ to make out like we pitiful and you got it made. You the masses your damn self and don’t even know it.

Tommy reminds them that the white definition of “nigger” extends equally to them: “When they say ‘nigger’, just dry-long so, they mean educated you and uneducated me.” Her words startle Bill into a psychological journey toward black affirmation. Shocked, he discovers that counter to what he has been taught, the dictionary definition of “nigger” does not mean “a low, degraded person” but “A Negro... A member of any dark-skinned people.” Tommy’s definition of “nigger”—by which she designates both the rioters who have burned her out of her apartment and Bill, once she discovers he has misrepresented his intentions in painting her—applies to those blacks who hurt and exploit other blacks to fuel their own self-esteem and to satisfy their own egocentric aims.

The racial denial, divisiveness, and do-nothing politics of Bill and other bourgeois blacks are just as destructive to black advancement and self-acceptance as the looting and burning done by those who destroy their own people’s businesses and homes in the name of revolution or as the scavenging of those who profit from the leavings. The rioters, as Tommy points out, holler “whitey, whitey... but who they burn out? Me.” Their violence is not unleashed on those they regard as the enemy but internalized, deflected onto the black community.

Contemptuous of black Harlemites, Bill, like the rioters, ironically abuses his own people, thereby revealing his unrecognized self-hatred and self-devaluation. Quick to sermonize but lacking a plan of his own, Bill is critical of both black factionalism—the rioters and looters—and black unity the leaderships of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Nothing blacks do seems to please him. Even his suburban upbringing in Jamaica, Long Island, where everyone in his family worked for the post office and every house on his block had “an aluminum screen door with a duck on it,” receives his disdain. Tommy plainly points all this out to him, perceiving that his rejection of her symbolizes his rejection of his mother, his family, the “flesh and blood” black community:

Ain’t a-one-a us you like that’s alive and walkin’ by you on the street... you don’t like flesh and blood niggers.... If a black somebody is in a history book, or printed on a pitcher, or drawed on a paintin’... or if they’re a statue,... dead, and outta the way, and can’t talk back, then you dig ’em and full-a so much-a damn admiration and talk ’bout “our” history. But when you run into us livin’ and breathin’ ones, with the life’s blood still pumpin’ through us,... then you comin’ on ’bout we ain’ never together. You hate us, that’s what! You hate black me!...

Maybe I look too much like the mother that give birth to you. Like the Ma and Pa that worked in the post office to buy you a house and a screen door with a damn duck on it. And you so ungrateful you didn’t even like it... You didn’t like who was livin’ behind them screen doors. Phoney Nigger!

Even with limited education and social exposure, Tommy knows that identity and self-worth do not come from acting out prescriptive black roles, reading black history, surrounding oneself with African art, or holding one’s familial roots in contempt.

A Guiding Africentrism

Essential to the sustenance of a positive black national culture, Childress argues, is the possession of a guiding respectful Africentrism. The nurturing racial attitudes that Tommy embraces serve as the essential ingredients for the propagation of that culture. Unlike Bill and his bourgeois neighbors, Tommy responds to Oldtimer, her elder and a survivor of past black oppression, as an equal. Her caring acknowledgment of his identity as Edmond L. Matthews recovers his personhood and reclaims his rightful membership in the social framework from which the others have consistently excluded him.

Tommy does not assume she “knows” Old-timer by reading his physical appearance as a sociopsychological text. She respectfully tells him, “I’ll call you Oldtimer like the rest but I like to know who I’m meetin’.” The others have narrowly defined Matthews by what he is, not by who he is, while the who of his identity, as Tommy intuitively comprehends, is more important than the what. Her humanity toward Oldtimer is again demonstrated near the end of the play when he debases himself because of his intellectual deficiency. Tommy, gently rebuking his self-deprecation, remarks, “Hush that talk... You know lotsa things, everybody does.”

Tommy’s respectful regard for the intimate relationships between black men and women is apparent from the moment she enters Bill’s apartment. Thirty and unmarried, she desires male intimacy and commitment; nevertheless, she is unwilling to sabotage the committed relationship of another black woman with a man in her own pursuit of love and companionship. For the benefit of any significant other possibly present in Bill’s apartment, Tommy makes it clear that she will have nothing to do with a married or attached man. Speaking loudly, she asserts, “Let’s get somethin’ straight. I didn’t come bustin’ in on the party,... I was asked. If you married and any wives or girl-friends round here... I’m innocent.” Later, when she concerns herself more with the benefits that marriage and a family will confer on her individually rather than on the race as a whole, she seems uncomfortable. Implicit in her apology to Bill that both “might be good; for your people as a race, but I was thinkin’ ’bout myself a little,” is the belief that considering herself first is a bit selfish.

Her familial and ancestral pasts empower Tommy. Unlike Bill, who is contemptuous of his parents and suburban upbringing, Tommy uses her now-deceased mother, a victim of spousal abandonment and its all too often ensuing cycle of poverty, as a major motivation for taking control of her life. Observing her mother “tyin’ up her stockin’s with strips-a rag ’cause she didn’t have no garters” and having herself had “[n]othin’ much” to eat when she returned home from school induced Tommy to seek employment and self-determination. She is not resentful that she had to terminate her schooling and does not blame her mother for their impoverished circumstances.

Tommy’s account of her family history further demonstrates her racial groundedness. In contrast to Bill’s detachment from the black community and black history, Tommy is closely attached to her hometown’s ordinary, local people, often members of her own family, and their small but real accomplishments—winning a scholarship in a speech contest, for instance, or tracing the family history back to slaves from Sweetwater Springs, Virginia. Reciting the geneses of The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in which she taught for two years identifies her as an active bearer of oral tradition and preserver of her cultural heritage.

Directing no hatred toward whites, Tommy’s Africentrism is not predicated on racism; she simply prefers the company of blacks. Presented with the choice of a live-in domestic job on Park Avenue with her own private bath and television and work in a Harlem dress factory among her friends, she chooses the latter. In contrast to Cynthia, who attempted to date white men but gave up when she realized that her education would not ensure her passage into the “so called ’integrated’ world,” Tommy affirms that she has never been interested in white men and doesn’t find them physically attractive. “When I look at ’em,” she tell Cynthia, “nothin’ happens.... I don’t hate ’em, don’t love ’em...just nothin’ shakes a-tall.”

The Matriarchal Society

Cynthia, who is unable to shrug off the oppressive patriarchy of the movement and defines herself in contrast to the image of the black matriarch, perceives herself as the responsible black woman who willingly subjugates her autonomy, spirit, and vision to help establish a black patriarchal world order. Accepting the commands and chastisement of her husband, she is at his beck and call. Sonny-man’s directive that she run down to their apartment and perform the gender-specific activity of cooking eggs for Bill’s model draws from her a “weary look” but a complacent verbal response: “Oh, Sonny, that’s such a lovely idea.” Later, she is rendered mute by Sonny-man’s childlike chiding of her for apologizing to Tommy for their role in Bill’s deception. “Cynthia, I tell you all the time, keep outta other people’s business. What the hell you got to do with who’s gonna get what outta what?” Though she has not been totally deluded by the male rhetoric of the black consciousness movement, she has certainly accepted female subservience and the proselytizing of other women for the male cause.

The sociosexual hierarchy in which man is “mounter” and woman is “mounted” is not the acknowledged norm of the black society of Wine in the Wilderness but rather it is the ideal toward which Cynthia believes it should strive. Cynthia shares the view of Bill and Sonny-man that “the problem with the black subculture... is that it is a matriarchy in which woman is mounter, thereby depriving black men of their masculine role.” She counsels Tommy that her lack of attractiveness to Bill emanates from her excessive brashness, independence, and dominance. The only way Tommy can rectify her masculinized behavior is by returning the black man’s manhood, by staying in the background and allowing him to pursue her. Cynthia enumerates ways that black women can empower black men to counter the debilitating “Matriarchal Society,” but suggests no course for female empowerment.

According to Cynthia, Tommy’s domineering nature has been formed in a matriarchal society, a society “in which the women rule... the women have the power... the women head the house.” Tommy’s refutation of the charge that she was reared in a matriarchal environment once her “papa picked hisself up and ran off with some finger-poppin’ woman” makes profound sense and deflates Cynthia’s fraudulent appraisal of her upbringing in a single sentence: “We didn’t have nothin’ to rule over, not a pot nor a window.” Her statement succinctly dramatizes the fact that women who survive in the absence of men do not constitute a power structure and that their survival tactics are not emblematic of man hating. Furthermore, Tommy’s blunt pronouncement regarding her and her mother’s powerlessness exposes the myth of black matriarchy: that it means social, economic, political, and personal power, yet power in any form has been the primary feature of life to which black women have had little or no access. Iterating her powerlessness, Tommy refuses to assume any responsibility for the loss of black manhood. “I didn’t take it from him, how I’m gonna give it back,” she rhetorically questions Cynthia.

Cynthia’s wry parting utterance to Bill, that his portrait of “Wine in the Wilderness” is “exploitation,” supports the inclusion of the earlier scene where the women converse in the absence of the men and points to the possibility of women’s exchange functioning as a vehicle for consciousness raising, leading to in turn to sisterly honesty and solidarity. Gayle Austin draws the following conclusion from the construction of a “women only” scene in Wine in the Wilderness:

There is in this play, unlike so many by male authors, a scene between women, between Tommy and Cynthia, in which Cynthia realizes long before Bill does that the actual Tommy is not of the image they had preconstructed of her. Tommy raises Cynthia’s consciousness by sharing her experiences, which strike a note of recognition in Cynthia. This scene points out that race and gender liberation are separate but related pursuits for black women. The scene is permeated by a sense of honesty possible between women when they are not looked at by men. Such a scene is almost nonexistent in plays that do not portray women as active subjects. There is a power in women getting together that is dangerous to male dominance.

A truthful reconstructed image of Tommy, an outgrowth of the women’s dialogue, raises Cynthia’s consciousness and her caution. Hesitant to protest more aggressively the use of Tommy as the matriarchal messed-up chick and thereby be categorized as domineering herself, Cynthia stifles a desire to repudiate the slick glamorized image of black womanhood that bears no resemblance to her either.

Tommy’s Anger

Counter to the ineffectual anger of the street riot, the liberating forces of anger and self-reliance empower Tommy not “to wait for anybody’s by-your-leave to be a ’Wine in the Wilderness’ woman.” Tommy fights for herself because no one else will, and her strong sense of values and self steer her clear of “take low” politics based on class and privilege. “There’s something inside-a me that says I ain’ suppose to let nobody play me cheap. Don’t care how much they know!” she avows to Bill. Recognition of her own self-worth allows Tommy to discount the false ideology that blames the matriarchal black woman for a legion of cultural, familial, and social ills. Rejecting educated black culture’s view of her, she contends that “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. And y’all just better believe I’m it.” True liberation, Tommy discovers, is an internal phenomenon.

Not “cold but utter perfection,” not “messed-up chick,” not “bitch,” not “the sister” but her own inscription of self sets Tommy up as “creator; she becomes the true artist etching the complexity of what it means to be a poor woman of color.” Her outbursts of spirit and anger against the prescriptive roles that men attempt to impose on her resonate with the message that “women must begin to name themselves, to express their totality, to fill up the blank page with recognizable images of women”.

Source: La Vinia Delois Jennings, “Blacks in the Abstract versus ’Flesh and Blood Niggers’,” in Alice Childress, Twayne Publishers, 1995, pp. 65–75.

Janet Brown

In the following essay, the author discusses the protagonist’s feminism and how her individual spirit overcomes the cultural limitations of patriarchy and race that surround her.

Wine in the Wilderness by Alice Childress shows a black woman’s assertion of her autonomy in an “educated” black culture striving to imitate the white patriarchy. The associational clusters in the play reveal a false ideal of subservient, glamorous black womanhood, opposed to another false picture of contemporary black women as domineering matriarchs. The associational cluster surrounding Tommy, the protagonist, opposes both of these with an image of the self-reliant black woman seeking equality with men. Tommy’s symbolic actions are assertions of her autonomy, at first unconscious expressions of her character, and finally, in the climactic scene, a conscious rejection of the false ideals held by the other characters.

Because the white hierarchical structure has not been fully adopted by the black culture in the play, it is possible for Tommy to transcend the limitations of such a hierarchy herself, and to convert the society around her to an ideal of equality and mutual respect. The philosophic conclusions of the play are idealistic. Tommy’s individual spirit overcomes the societal determinants in the play, making it an optimistic statement of the feminist impulse....

In the first scene of Wine in the Wilderness, two of the important clusters of associations in the play make their first appearances. Bill establishes the cluster of associations defining his ideal black woman, and the one defining her opposite, the “nothing” black woman, in this scene.

Before a word is spoken, the audience can tell from the setting that Bill has a taste for the exotic. According to the stage directions, “The room is obviously black dominated, pieces of sculpture, wall hangings, paintings.” It also “reflects an interest in other darker peoples of the world.... A Chinese incense-burner Buddha, an American Indian feathered war helmet, a Mexican serape, a Japanese fan, a West Indian travel poster.” Bill’s ideal woman, the “Wine in the Wilderness” painting, shares the exotic quality of his furnishings:

Mother Africa, regal, black womanhood in her noblest form.... This Abyssinian maiden is paradise,... She’s the Sudan, the Congo River, the Egyptian Pyramids... Her thighs are African Mahogany... she speaks and her words pour forth sparkling clear as the waters... Victoria Falls.

These images, with the set decorations, form a cluster of associations around exotic, foreign beauty.

The second cluster of associations in this scene forms around the opposite of this ideal, the “lost woman.” Her associations are with “grass roots.” She is “a back country chick right outta the wilds of Mississippi,... but she ain’ never been near there. Born in Harlem, raised right here in Harlem,... but back country.” She is “ignorant, unfeminine, coarse, rude... vulgar.” This cluster of associations is the opposite of the first, negative rather than positive, and familiar rather than exotic.

Oldtimer, hearing the first cluster of associations, comments that Victoria Falls is a pretty name for a woman. So foreign are the associations clustering around Bill’s ideal black woman that they are laughably unfamiliar to an uneducated American black like Oldtimer. In contrast, when Oldtimer hears the description of “the lost woman” later in this scene, he recognizes it at once, and says, “Oh, man, you talkin’ ’bout my first wife.” The positive qualities in Bill’s triptych are unrecognizable to a black man off the street, but the negative qualities are a completely familiar critique of black women. Although this is evident to the audience from Old-timer’s reactions in the first scene, it takes Bill the rest of the play to reach this awareness.

In the last scene, Tommy tells him:

If a black somebody is in a history book, or printed on a pitcher, or drawed on a paintin’,... or if they’re a statue,... dead, and outta the way, and can’t talk back, then you dig ’em and full-a so much-a damn admiration and talk ’bout “our” history. But when you run into us livin’ and breathin’ ones, with the life’s blood still pumpin’ through us,... then you comin’ on ’bout how we ain’ never together. You hate us, that’s what.”


And the stage directions tell us that Bill is “stung to the heart” by this distinction between the associations surrounding his ideal, and those surrounding his view of real black women.

When Tommy and Cynthia discuss Bill, the cluster of associations around his ideal grows. Cynthia says that in order to please Bill, Tommy should stop wearing her wig. She should also “let him do the talking. Learn to listen. Stay in the background a little. Ask his opinion... ’What do you think, Bill?’” This description fits very well with Bill’s analysis of what is wrong with black women in a later scene. “Our women don’t know a damn thing ‘bout bein’ feminine. Give in sometime.” The ideal black woman, he says, should “throw them suppers together, keep your husband happy, raise the kids.”

The cluster surrounding Bill’s ideal of womanhood, then, includes not only exotic beauty but subservience to men. Cynthia and Bill envision a socio-sexual hierarchy in which men are dominant. Tommy, however, when she hears Cynthia’s suggestions, says, “Mmmmm. ’Oh, hooty, hooty, hoo’,” a comment she has made a few lines earlier in reference to white men. “The dullest people in the world. The way they talk... ’Oh, hooty, hooty, hoo’... break it down for me to A, B, C’s.” Tommy is correct in associating Cynthia’s description with white men. The behavior that Cynthia says will please Bill is the behavior demanded of women in the white patriarchal society.

According to Cynthia, Tommy’s problem is having been raised in a matriarchal society which has robbed black men of their manhood. In other words, Cynthia is describing a reversal of the socio-sexual hierarchy in which women are dominant. Tommy rejects this idea, saying that women did not rule in her family because: “We didn’t have nothin’ to rule over, not a pot nor a window.” When Cynthia tells Tommy to give the black man his manhood, Tommy answers, “I didn’t take it from him, how I’m gonna give it back?”

To these two choices, the cluster of associations surrounding a subservient role for women in imitation of white patriarchy or the cluster surrounding a black matriarchy of “lost women,” Tommy adds a third alternative: equal roles for women and men. Describing her dream to Cynthia, Tommy says that she is looking for a man “to meet me halfway.” She does not expect him to support her; rather “the both of you gotta pull together. That way you accomplish.” She hopes for companionship: “Somebody in my corner. Not to wake up by myself in the mornin’ and face this world all alone.” The third cluster of associations, defining Tommy’s ideal, begins to form in this scene.

The three clusters of associations—around Bill’s exotic ideal, around the “lost,” matriarchal, black woman, and around Tommy, the woman seeking an equal relationship—continue to develop in subsequent scenes. In Tommy’s next scene with Bill, the cluster of associations surrounding his ideal grows to include Afro-American history. He has pictures on his wall of Frederick Douglass and John Brown, and tells Tommy about other figures in black history with whom she is not familiar. But he discourages her questions about them, saying, “Trouble with our women,... they all wanta be great brains. Leave somethin’ for a man to do.” Although his ideal includes heroic men and women in history, it also includes ignorant women in the present day, allowing their men intellectual superiority.

Tommy also finds a picture on his wall of a blonde, blue-eyed model who, Bill says, could sit on her long, silky hair. Tommy responds bitterly, saying that it is this attitude that forces her to wear a wig, ’“cause you and those like you go for long, silky hair, and this is the only way I can have some without burnin’ my mother-grabbin’ brains out.” Although Bill claims that his ideal is black, it is in fact an imitation of the white ideal of womanhood symbolized by the blonde model: an ornamental, subservient woman without intellectual independence.

Tommy counters this false ideal when, later in the same scene, she overhears Bill describing his painting and believes that he is in love with her. Confident of his appreciation, she appears without the wig symbolic of the false ideal of beauty. In an effective reversal of Bill’s history lesson, Tommy reveals her own local history, more personal and touching than Bill’s version, and showing honest pride:

I had a uncle who was an “Elk,”... a member of “The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World”: “The Henry Lincoln Johnson Lodge.” You know, the white “Elks” are called “The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks” but the black “Elks” are called “The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World.” That’s because the black “Elks” got the copyright first but the white “Elks” took us to court about it to keep us from usin’ the name. Over fifteen hundred black folk went to jail for wearin’ the “Elk” emblem on their coat lapel. Years ago,... that’s what you call history.”

Tommy’s history, in contrast to Bill’s, is filled with “real” people, often members of her own family, and their small but real accomplishments—winning a scholarship in a speech contest, for instance, or tracing the family history back to slaves from Sweetwater Springs, Virginia. She reveals her personality in her history and in preferences such as pink roses for corsages and four o’clocks for bush flowers.

Bill’s negative associations with this kind of local, recent history, part of the cluster surrounding the “lost woman,” appear in his description of his own family:

Everybody in my family worked for the Post Office. They bought a house in Jamaica, Long Island. Everybody on that block bought an aluminum screen door with a duck on it,... or was it a swan? I guess that makes my favorite flower crab grass and hedges.”

In Bill’s mind, only the exotic is positive; the familiar is always vulgar, not “together.”

The three clusters of associations finally conflict directly in the last scene when Tommy discovers that she is not “Wine in the Wilderness” to Bill, but a model for the “messed-up chick” in his triptych. Her wig figures symbolically once more, when Tommy tells Cynthia that Tommy does, indeed, have to wear a wig: “To soften the blow when yall go upside-a my head with a baseball bat.” In other words, Tommy needs the wig, which she had felt safe in removing, as a defense against the false ideal of beauty.

Tommy makes the distinction between Bill’s positive, exotic ideal and his negative view of real black women explicit in this final scene: “Ain’t a-one-a us you like that’s alive and walkin’ by you on the street... you don’t like flesh and blood niggers.” It is not the screen doors with ducks on them that offended him in his childhood, she says: “You didn’t like who was livin’ behind them screen doors. Phoney Nigger!”

Bill’s ideal is false not only because it is unrealistically exotic and based on white values, but also because it objectifies the black woman—makes an “other” of her just as the white society does of white women. In the final scene, Tommy asserts her autonomy, her ability to be subject rather than object, to be a “real,” contemporary black woman who is admirable:

Bill, I don’t have to wait for anybody’s by- your-leave to be a “Wine in the Wilderness” woman. I can be it if I wanta,... and I am. I am. I am. I’m not the one you made up and painted, the very pretty lady who can’t talk back,... but I’m “Wine in the Wilderness”... alive and kickin’ me... Tomorrow Marie, cussin’ and fightin’ and lookin’ out for my damn self ’cause ain’ nobody else ’round to do it, dontcha know.

The falsity of Bill’s ideal finally becomes clear to him. He rejects the exotic “other,” the black queen he has imagined. “She’s not it at all, Tommy, This chick on the canvas,... nothin’ but accessories, a dream I dreamed up outta the junk of my mind. You are... the real beautiful people.” The painting, and Tommy, are explicitly identified as representative at the end of the play.

In fact, each of the associational clusters has elements on each of the three levels distinguished by Burke: the sensory, the familial, and the abstract. On the sensory level are the physical descriptions of the “Wine in the Wilderness” painting, of the planned painting of the “lost woman,” and of Tommy when she appears as her natural self in an African throw, without her wig. On the familial level, the “Wine in the Wilderness” woman is “Mother Africa” and the “lost woman” is the domineering matriarch destroying her family. Tommy is associated with the positive, familial images of her family history.

On the abstract level, all three clusters operate as symbolic representations of black womanhood. The “Wine in the Wilderness” painting represents the false ideal of exotic beauty and subservience in imitation of the white socio-sexual hierarchy. The “lost woman” represents the black matriarchy, a reversed socio-sexual hierarchy supposedly destroying black society. And Tommy represents the true societal ideal, autonomous and equal women and men.

Pattern of Symbolic Action

Tommy’s assertions of her own autonomy and pride in her race make up the pattern of symbolic action of the play. From the beginning, Tommy displays these qualities unconsciously in her behavior. By asking Oldtimer’s real name, something his friends have never bothered to do, she shows respect for another black person. “I’ll call you Oldtimer like the rest but I like to know who I’m meetin’,” she says. Later in this scene, Tommy explains that, although she could keep house for a white family on Park Avenue, she prefers to work in a factory and live among her black friends in Harlem. In her scene with Cynthia, Tommy says that she never gave up dating white men as Cynthia did. “I never had none to give up,” she says. “I’m not soundin’ on you. White folks, nothin’ happens when I look at ’em. I don’t hate ’em, don’t love ’em,... just nothin’ shakes a-tall. The dullest people in the world.” Throughout the play, Tommy shows more respect and love for her own race than the others do, just as she shows respect for herself.

Tommy tells Cynthia that she would like to marry because she is lonely, but “I don’t want any and everybody. What I want with a no-good piece-a nothin’?” Tommy has too much self-respect to marry someone she does not love and admire. Later in the play, she demonstrates this attitude again, when Bill brings her a frankfurter instead of Chinese food. She likes Bill very much, as she has just told Cynthia. But her liking and her hopes of marriage don’t stop her from objecting to this supper. “You brought me a frank-footer? That’s what you think a-me, a frank-footer?” Bill says that kings and queens eat frankfurters, but Tommy is not put off. “If a queen sent you out to buy her a bucket-a Fooyung, you wouldn’t come back with no lonely-ass frank-footer,” she says.

Tommy’s account of her family history further demonstrates her respect for herself and her race. And she consistently rejects Cynthia’s and Bill’s suggestions that she be more subservient, usually on grounds of common sense. When Cynthia suggests that she not chase Bill, “at least don’t let it look that way. Let him pursue you,” Tommy answers, “What if he won’t? Men don’t chase me much, not the kind I like.” When Cynthia tells Tommy that black women “do for ourselves too much,” Tommy answers, “If I don’t, who’s gonna do for me?” But to Bill’s suggestion that she should “keep your husband happy, raise the kids,” she responds, “Bein’ married and havin’ a family might be good for your people as a race, but I was thinkin’ ’bout myself a little.”

This statement demonstrates the unconscious quality of Tommy’s assertions of autonomy. She seems to suggest that assertiveness and “thinking about herself” might be wrong, and that the subservient, objectified ideal held up by Cynthia and Bill might be more beneficial to her race. The turning point in the pattern of symbolic action comes when Tommy decides that she is right in asserting her autonomy.

Up until the point of her decision, the other characters have attempted to reprimand and correct Tommy’s assertions of her autonomy. Tommy, while she has not backed down, has admitted that the others probably know more about correct behavior than she does. When Bill tells her to say “Afro-Americans,” not “niggers,” she does, at least for a while. She tells Cynthia: “If there’s somethin’ wrong that I can change, I’m ready to do it. Eighth grade, that’s all I had of school. You a social worker, I know that mean college.” Examining Bill’s books and pictures on black history, Tommy says, “This room is full-a things I don’t know nothin’ about. How’ll I get to know?” All of these comments indicate Tommy’s acceptance of her own inferiority, and the unconscious quality of her own attitude of self-respect.

The turning point in the pattern of symbolic action comes when Tommy discovers that she was to model for the “messed-up chick” in the triptych. All of Tommy’s former assertions of autonomy and all of the reproofs she accepted from Cynthia and Bill appear in a new light to her at that point. She throws Cynthia’s advice on wigs back in her face in this scene. She corrects Sonny-man for calling her “the sister”: “If you feelin’ so brotherly why don’t you say ‘my’ sister? Ain’t no we-ness in your talk. ‘The’ Afro-American, ‘the’ black man, there’s no we-ness in you. Who you think you are?” She tells Oldtimer: “You their fool too. ’Til I got here they didn’t even know your damn name.” She rejects Bill’s knowledge of Afro-American history, knocking his books to the floor and saying, “There’s something inside-a me that says I ain’ suppose to let nobody play me cheap. Don’t care how much they know!” And she insists on calling Bill a nigger over his protests that she is using the word incorrectly because, he says, “A nigger is a low, degraded person, any low degraded person.” He looks it up in the dictionary to prove his point, and discovers that the definition is: “A Negro... a member of any dark-skinned people.”

All of this only re-affirms what has already become clear to the audience: that Tommy is the truly autonomous individual, and Bill, Sonny-man and Cynthia are striving for a false ideal imitative of the white patriarchy, despite their education and sophistication. But the scene is important because it is the point in the play at which this distinction finally reaches Tommy’s consciousness.

Tommy’s earlier belief in the others’ superior education and her fear that her assertiveness is not for the good of the race are laid to rest in this scene. She regrets her previous assumption of her own inferiority: “Trouble is I was Tommin’ to you, to all of you,... ‘Oh, maybe they gon’ like me.’... I was your fool, thinkin’ writers and painters know more’n me, that maybe a little bit of you would rub off on me.”

Seeing the falsity of their ideal—the cluster of associations surrounding the “Wine in the Wilderness” painting—she asserts that the elements of this ideal are just “accessories”: “Somethin’ you add on or take off. 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. And yall just better believe I’m it.” And she starts for the door, having become fully aware of her own autonomy.

This new awareness is the significant change in motivation in the play. Tommy realizes that it is a change, and tells the others, “I hate to do it but I have to thank you ’cause I’m walkin’ out with much more than I brought in.” She is walking out with a new awareness of her own strength, of her own power to assert her autonomy, something she has done unconsciously throughout the play.

Agent:Scene Ratio

Because Wine in the Wilderness shows a female protagonist, Tommy, asserting her autonomy in opposition to an unjust socio-sexual hierarchy, the play can be considered a feminist drama. Analysis of the agent-scene ratio reveals the play’s affinity to a particular philosophic school: idealism. Because Tommy’s achievement of autonomy is emphasized, the play is idealistic, showing the triumph of the individual spirit.

The depiction of scene, the unjust socio-sexual hierarchy, is unusual in Wine in the Wilderness. The socio-sexual hierarchy in which man is “mounter” and woman is “mounted” is not the norm in the society of the play, but rather is the ideal toward which the characters believe they should strive. The problem with the black sub-culture, Bill and Cynthia believe, is that it is a matriarchy in which woman is mounter, thereby depriving black men of their masculine role.

But Tommy disagrees with this depiction of her society. Women do not rule in the black society; rather, they are the most oppressed members of the oppressed black caste. Her own mother “ruled” in the home only because her father deserted the family: “My pappa picked hisself up and run off with some finger-poppin’ woman and we never hear another word ’til ten, twelve years later when a undertaker call up and ask if Mama wanta claim his body.” If black women are strong, Tommy maintains that it is because they have had to be self-sufficient.

Because black women have been forced to be self-sufficient, and because black men have been oppressed, the black culture has not succeeded in imitating thoroughly the socio-sexual hierarchy of white society. As a result, it is possible for Tommy to assert her autonomy within this sub-culture, and to seek a relationship of equality outside of either a patriarchal or a matriarchal structure.

In doing so, she is at first opposed by the scene, the “educated” element of black society which maintains that a patriarchy is the race’s hope of the future, and which holds up as ideal the glamorous but subservient, objectified “Wine in the Wilderness” woman. Finally, however, Tommy’s assertion of her own individuality is revealed as a more sincere black pride, a more perfect ideal than Bill’s painting or Cynthia’s image of the patriarchal society.

According to Burke, if the agent’s achievement is featured in a play, the play is idealistic. In an idealistic play, spirit triumphs over matter; the individual transcends societal limitations. In Wine in the Wilderness, Tommy’s individual spirit transcends the hierarchical view of society formerly held by the other characters.

In the last scene of the play, Bill replaces the “Wine in the Wilderness” painting with a picture of Tommy, thus symbolically replacing the objectified, subservient image of black womanhood with Tommy, the autonomous subject. By speaking up for herself, Tommy has not only gained a new consciousness of her own individual spirit, but she has converted the society around her to a new ideal. Bill summarizes what her self-reliance and pride represent as an ideal for their race:

Look at Tomorrow. She came through the biggest riot of all,... somethin’ called “Slavery,” and she’s even comin’ through the “now” scene,... folks laughin’ at her, even her own folks laughin’ at her. And look how... with her head high up like she’s poppin’ her fingers at the world. (Takes up charcoal pencil and tears old page off sketch pad so he can make a fresh drawing) Aw, let me put it down, Tommy. “Wine in the Wilderness,” you gotta let me put it down so all the little boys and girls can look up and see you on the wall. And you know what they’re gonna say? “Hey, don’t she look like somebody we know?”

Tommy is “somebody we know,” an individual whose spirit triumphs over matter, making the play an idealistic, feminist drama.


Because Wine in the Wilderness depicts a female protagonist asserting her autonomy in opposition to an unjust socio-sexual hierarchy, it is a feminist drama. The associational clusters in the play show a false ideal of subservient black womanhood, a negative cluster describing the supposed black matriarch, and a cluster describing the truly autonomous, individual black woman seeking equality. The pattern of symbolic action is one of Tommy’s repeated assertions of her autonomy, at first unconscious and made from an assumption of inferiority. At the turning point in the play’s motivation, Tommy becomes aware of her own self-worth, and converts the society of the play to her values. Agent dominates in this drama, in which Tommy’s individual spirit transcends the false ideal of a patriarchal socio-sexual hierarchy. The play is an idealistic, optimistic statement of the feminist impulse.

Source: Janet Brown, “Wine in the Wilderness,” in Feminist Drama, Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1979, pp. 56–70.


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.


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.