Black Is Back at ACT

A potent '60s-era script ushers in a new African-American theater project.

A subtle drama about archetypal ideals versus imperfect reality, ACT Theatre's Wine in the Wilderness delivers a rich dialogue on color, class, and community. Set amid race riots in Harlem, 1964, the play follows Bill, a college-educated painter, on his quest to complete a triptych depicting black femininity. His project is turned upside down by his final subject, a streetwise girl named Tommy. Written by acclaimed playwright, novelist, and actress Alice Childress, Wine in the Wilderness was originally produced on-screen in a 1969 series titled "On Being Black." It returns to the Seattle stage as the inaugural production of the Hansberry Project, a new ACT venture named after activist-playwright Lorraine Hansberry dedicated to producing works that immerse audiences in African-American culture.

The project gets a strong launch from Wine in the Wilderness director Valerie Curtis-Newton, who sets up powerful and heartfelt performances by the cast of five. While riots rage in the streets below, Bill (Shanga Parker) sits safe in his apartment, eager to complete his paintings. He has finished two parts of his triptych, an innocent child and a stunning African queen, but needs a subject for the third part, a "messed-up girl" who represents all that society has done to dethrone black women and render them coarse and irregular. Bill's friends Sonny-Man, a writer, and Cynthia, a social worker, unearth a perfect specimen while stranded at a bar during the riot.

Tommy (April Yvette Thompson) is everything Bill seeks in a model for his final painting. She's headstrong, crude, poorly dressed, and undereducated. She's also a complete mystery to Bill and his middle-class acquaintances, people so caught up in the ethos of "black is beautiful" and the political turmoil of the times that they cannot decipher her personality. Tommy's sassy unpredictability is a delightful foil to Bill's scholarly elitism, and they fight about everything from frankfurters to female emancipation. Tommy is at times so sincere that it's almost incredible, but Thompson possesses enough panache to make you hang on her every word. With this performance, she could carry the whole play alone. Thankfully, she doesn't have to—the entire ensemble flawlessly delivers a stellar rendition of this complicated, conflict-driven story.

As the first mainstage production of the Hansberry Project, Wine in the Wilderness wastes no time bringing audiences straight into the fray, beyond textbook Black History and toward an infinitely more familiar firsthand vision of the struggle against prejudice inside the African-American community. As a Caucasian raised in a racially tense suburb outside Detroit, I felt initial hesitation to enter into Childress' dialogue, as if I were intruding on a private conversation. But the warmth of the roles combined with their candid and uncompromising honesty opens the door for exploration to even the most distant of viewers.

With such strongly political overtones, this could easily have been a heavy-handed production. Instead, what comes out from beneath the sweeping themes of race and gender and the head-to-head character conflict is a very personal struggle to find solidarity within a sea of lost identity. Wine in the Wilderness tackles tough questions about black culture with straight talk that's as entertaining as it is thought provoking. But instead of claiming to have all the answers, this play asks its audience to listen, to remember, and to form its own opinions.

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