By JULINDA LEWIS Special correspondent
With “Wine in the Wilderness,” the Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company presents a provocative play that is a focused look at how race, gender and class tear at the fabric of a black population struggling to define a sense of community and purpose.
Written nearly 50 years ago, this work by Alice Childress seems as current now as then. The play’s action is placed squarely in the turbulent 1960s.
Racial tension is high. People are rioting in the streets, looting stores and destroying property. There is a gaping economic and educational chasm between the classes. Black women are often viewed as being too sexualized, too strong and not feminine enough. Terms such as Afro-American and African-American and racial slurs are being hotly debated.
During this turbulent time in Harlem, Bill Jameson (Rakeem Laws), an educated artist and son of a family of postal workers, is searching for a down-and-out model to pose for the final painting in his triptych on black womanhood.
His friends Sonny-Man (Foree Shalom) and Cynthia (Muslima Musawwir) meet Tommy/Tomorrow Marie (Dorothy “Dee-D” Miller) in a bar where people have gathered to get away from the rioting.
Tommy seems to be Jameson’s perfect model, but trouble begins when the couple let her think they are introducing her to him as a potential date.
As Tommy later points out, Bill and Sonny-Man refer to the sister and the black man, but never to my sister. Tommy, an uneducated, crude but highly perceptive black woman, is the first to notice there is no “we-ness” in their talk. She is the only one to ask Old Timer (Toney Q. Cobb) what his name really is, subtly demonstrating what some would call “home training” and others would call an inherent sense of respect for others.
Miller is a standout as the sensitive, unschooled yet highly intelligent Tommy. Her physical transformation, after removing her wig and mismatched clothes, is stunning. Her demeanor changes along with her wardrobe. She becomes the catalyst for change.
This production might have been a challenging undertaking, but Heritage Ensemble Theatre Company has done a remarkable job bringing “Wine in the Wilderness” to life.
D.L. Hopkins, in his first directorial spin with Heritage, is teamed with an excellent script, a creative crew and a cast eager to make these characters real.
Laws at first seems too large (physically and dramatically) for the space, but not as we gain insight into his character, Bill Jameson. While educated and talented, the arrogant and disconnected Jameson exists in his own reality — a man creating an ideal vision.
Artistic director Margarette Joyner, who is also the show’s stage manager and set designer, and her crew have created a colorful and appropriate set. Hopkins’ sound design and LaWanda Raines’ costumes are among the show’s highlights. Miller’s mismatched outfit and wig, both of which she keeps adjusting, are accompanied by humorous and endearing body language.
“Wine in the Wilderness” is a story worth experiencing.
Julinda Lewis is a dancer, teacher and writer living in eastern Henrico County. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.