One of the most annoying things in the world is to be a member of an oppressed minority and to be told by a comfortable, condescending liberal that you are approaching the issue of your oppression all wrong. That is not what Alice Childress does in Wine In The Wilderness; it is, however, what I am about to do in this review.
Childress's play – originally written for television in 1969, and only now receiving its British stage première – deals with a black artist attempting to create the Great Afro-American Painting against the backdrop of the 1964 Harlem riots. When his middle-class friends introduce him to an edgy young woman who they think would be a perfect model for the final panel of his triptych, artist Bill and model Tommy teach each other over the course of an evening and a morning what it means to be black.
Ricco Ross and Jenny Jules turn in a couple of fine central performances, and Childress's play does illuminate various aspects of black American history, but it's plain that, as Bill and Tommy swap aspects of the black experience, it is not for each other's benefit but for ours. This is a Lehrstück and a contribution to the ongoing social debate, and in three decades that debate has travelled some distance. It is also too obviously a piece with an agenda to stand as a historical document of value: the final moments, in which Bill totally reconceives his triptych in terms – gosh! – of according mythic status to the here-and-now reality of his friends, drip with the aspirational sentimentalism which is the curse of so much American teledrama – you can almost hear the music swelling for the closing credits.
Director Nicolas Kent plainly realised that Childress's play has so dated that it requires support, since he commissioned a curtain-raising response to it, Winsome Pinnock's Water. Centring on a fascinated journalist's interview with a young black British artist (Gary McDonald and Cecilia Noble respectively, who play the middle-class couple in Wine) who turns out to be more, or less, than she seems, Pinnock's forty-minute piece likewise tackles themes of art and authenticity, but is more successful for using aspects of contemporary black life as fuel for this investigation rather than vice versa. It is at times an engrossing piece, but makes awkward transitions between its moments of joyous intimacy and the too-formal debate which dominates its proceedings. Nevertheless, in terms of contemporary dramatic worth, it is the tail which wags the dog of Childress's piece.
Naturally, as a white middle-class Northern Irishman, I feel awkward being so dismissive of a play that is not, after all, about my experience. But Childress was, by definition in American television in 1969, writing for a universal audience, and in the intervening years that universality has dwindled to the curiosity value of a single snapshot, and an airbrushed one at that.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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