Tuesday, February 27, 2024

"Wine in the Wilderness" at Penumbra Theatre

Last weekend, I saw four plays written by women. The first three were by living playwrights (Grace McLean's musical In the Green, Lauren Gunderson's Silent Sky, and Keiko Green's world premiere Hells Canyon), and the fourth was by Alice Childress, one of the most prolific Black female playwrights of the 20th Century, who had her Broadway play debut just a few years ago - Trouble in Mind (which the Guthrie produced a few years earlier). Her plays seem to be having a resurgence in recent years, and it's about time. In 2017 Penumbra Theatre Company produced the gorgeous and devastating Wedding Band, and now they're presenting Wine in the Wilderness, about an artist painting Black women in 1960s Harlem. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking exploration of the intersection of race and gender, as always beautifully done by Penumbra.

The play takes place in the Harlem apartment of artist Bill, as the city begins to quiet after an uprising. Bill's neighbor, affectionately known as Oldtimer, comes in to hide his "loot." Bill explains to him his new project - a triptych depicting all of the facets of Black womanhood (the first red flag - the idea that all Black women fall into three types). There's a sweet and innocent young girl, a powerful woman representing Mother Africa, and a third painting yet to be completed, which Oldtimer summarizes as "the messed up chick." Bill's friends Cynthia and Sonny-Man meet a woman at a bar who they think fits the description, and bring her over to pose for Bill. But Tommy (short for Tomorrow), whose home was burned and boarded up in the uprising, is no pushover. She's not going to sit quietly and let some artist paint who he thinks she is. And to their credit, the others soon see that, as they realize that there's more than one way to be a Black woman.

Nubia Monks as Tommy (photo by Caroline Yang Photography)
Lou Bellamy directs this excellent five-person cast, with some lightness and humor in a play that deals with serious topics. Nubia Monks gives a fierce performance as Tommy - walking and talking with bravado, but also showing her vulnerable side as she just wants to be seen and loved. La'Tevin Alexander is strong as Bill, very naturally being this character, with a believable arc of growth as he learns from Tommy. Vinecia Coleman and Darrick Mosley appear in the smaller roles (but not smaller performances) of Bill's friends, a married couple who think they have it all figured out and learn a thing or two also. Last but not least, James Craven is charming as the Oldtimer who is more than he seems.

The set is a shabby but homey apartment (Tommy think it's been hit by the riot, but Bill just claims he's redecorating). There are a few worn pieces of furniture, a kitchen area, and piles of books everywhere. Behind the half walls can be seen the cityscape, with projections changing the landscape. Lighting and sound design help us feel the uprising and other city activities just outside the walls of the apartment. Characters are dressed in cool '60s era clothes that help tell us who they are. (Scenic design by Seitu Jones, costume design by Dana Woods, projection design by Miko Simmons, sound design and composition by Gregory Robinson, and properties design by Abbee Warmboe.)

This play is usually performed in one act, but Penumbra has added an intermission (following an unfortunate recent trend in #TCTheater). It falls in a natural place in the story, but the second act is only a half hour so it doesn't seem necessary, and would play nicely as a 90-minute play that's short, succinct, and to the point - as the playwright wrote it.

Wine in the Wilderness explores issues like gender stereotypes within the Black community (the woman is supposed to let the man take care of her, when Tommy knows that if she doesn't take care of herself no one else will), classism, and the way we're quick to judge someone based on their appearance or attitude. But Tommy reminds us that people are complicated and can't be reduced to a type, and that every person has worth that goes beyond an idea on a canvas. Continuing through March 17 at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul.