Dramaturg’s Note: Childress in the Wilderness
Posted on: May 20, 2021
Alice Childress originally wrote Wine in the Wilderness for television. The play premiered as part of the WGBH series “On Being Black,” first airing in Boston, Massachusetts on March 4, 1969. The Ford Foundation provided WGBH with a large grant to fund this series, which was produced by Luther James, a former executive producer for CBS.
Other pieces featured in the series included a performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and plays by Phillip Hayes Dean, Lonne Elder III, J.e. Franklin, and Luther James, among others.
In the words of The North Adams Transcript, “‘On Being Black’ was originated by WGBH because the station believes television drama may well be the most effective way of showing black existence ‘like it really is’ since the playwright can often illuminate human experience in ways that cannot be realized by documentaries, by coverage of demonstrations or the airing of grievances.”
The TV broadcast of Wine in the Wilderness was directed by George Bass and starred Abbey Lincoln and Israel Hicks in the roles of Tommy and Bill, respectively. The play was lauded as “a superb and shattering drama of raw emotions” by the Boston Herald Traveler. It eventually aired on TV stations across the country after its original broadcast in Boston, but it was banned in Alabama because the subject matter was viewed as too controversial. In 1974, Childress’s play Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White was adapted and broadcast by ABC. It was similarly censored by Southern ABC affiliates because of its content. Since 1969, Wine in the Wilderness has been produced in readings and productions at schools and theatres across the country.
Wine in the Wilderness has become one of Childress’s most celebrated plays, along with Trouble in Mind and Wedding Band. Her plays were successful with both audiences and critics during her lifetime, yet she is not often counted in theatrical circles as one of the popular or notable writers of the 20th century. Both Trouble in Mind and Wedding Band were optioned for Broadway, but neither made it to production there due to a combination of factors. Trouble in Mind, in particular, went through a circuitous process of rewrites after its initial premiere at the Greenwich Mews Theatre to make it “palatable” for Broadway in the producers’ eyes. Ultimately, the production never came to fruition because Childress refused to compromise her artistic vision for what the producers considered to be public appeal. Because of the legacy of her artistic integrity and her appetite for writing unflinchingly and honestly about race in America, Childress’s work has still never been seen on Broadway. Her overdue Broadway premiere will occur in fall of 2021 with a production of Trouble in Mind directed by Charles Randolph-Wright at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. ♦
Read more: Timeline of Black American Theatre
Read more: Literary Ancestry Essay Series
Read more: Recommended Plays and Further Reading
|“Abbey Lincoln stars In Drama.” Topeka Messenger, 26 Sept. 1969, p. 7.
Barlow, Judith E. “Trouble in Mind: Foreword.” Plays by American Women: 1930-1960, edited by Judith E. Barlow, Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 2001, pp. 469-481.
Berson, Misha. “At Intiman, a story about race, privilege, and love.” The Seattle Times. 6 Sept. 2016.
Childress, Alice. “Wine in the Wilderness.” Selected Plays, edited by Kathy A. Perkins, Northwestern University Press, 2011, pp. 179-219.
“First of 20 Dramas to Begin on Tuesday.” The North Adams Transcript [North Adams, MA], 3 Mar. 1969, p. 1.
Gardella, Kay. “On Being Black TV Series Opens With Strong Drama.” Daily News [New York, NY], 7 Oct. 1969, p. 41.
Shaw, Helen. “Alice Childress Didn’t Defang Her Plays, and Producers Said No.” Vulture, New York Magazine, Vox Media Network, 8 Jan. 2020.
“TV Highlights Today.” Boston Globe, 5 March 1969, p. 44.
“Wine in the Wilderness.” Drama for Students. Encyclopedia.com.
“Wine in the Wilderness.” Dramatists Play Service, Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
“‘Wine in the Wilderness’ Scheduled on Channel 13.” North Hills News Record [North Hills, PA], 10 Dec. 1969, p. 20.
“You’ve Never Seen Abbey Lincoln Black.” The Miami Herald, 1 Oct. 1969, p. 16.