I admit, I approached this essay with no small amount of trepidation, possibly bordering on terror. I was (am) paralyzed at the sense of wanting to get it right, of paying tribute to the piece so influential to who I am as a Black woman writer. I wanted to do Childress justice, after decades of her work being relegated to the occasional regional production or inhabiting academia’s halls. I wanted to thank her for the gift of Tomorrow Marie and found the task daunting. How do you thank someone who in one character liberated you from the burden of the straight male gaze? Of respectability and its caprices, its confines? Someone who made your own tomorrows full of possibility and joy?
I suppose we start with the woman then, and her careful, nuanced creation of the Black people in a play that tackles intersections decades before Kimberly Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins formally named it. Yeah, let’s start there.
In Telling the Truth: Alice Childress as Theorist and Playwright, the scholar Olga Dugan names truth and rigor as central to Childress’ goal of creating work for, about, and by Black people. Dugan writes: “The greater part of her theory delineates a method for self expression by which Black playwrights can make the African-American people subject of plays for a theatre that she believed would be dedicated to telling the truth, about their many experiences, and to promoting their well-being.”(150)1 In short, for Childress there can be no well-being without nuance, the path to accuracy and honesty, to being seen as you really are. And that’s not always rosy. I clung to the rosy as a young writer, but Childress gave me the permission to speak of ugly truth, and, even more central to me, to create Black heroines for the stage. Because where Blackness and womanhood intersect is where I write, where Wine in the Wilderness begins.
I have always wanted to be a hero, a warrior. Female heroines were the first to spark my imagination. There was Sailor Moon, then when a little older, J.Lo’s Selena. Older still- Dana from Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Girls and women, managing to triumph, even when it’s most unexpected. Sailor Moon’s tears allow her empathy to shine, granting her endless strength. Selena never bows down to any male authority- a father, a husband, the entirety of an industry who thought a woman could not make it. Dana, wrested from the relative comfort of 20th century Los Angeles, who heals and raises the boy until he demands too much of her. I needed these heroes and Childress was the first playwright to show me Black women heroines within theater I resonated with. Heroic because of their honesty, their willingness to confront their community about harm and still love and forgive them. Wine in the Wilderness’s Tommy is my favorite heroine, for her endless capacity for truth.
From the play’s onset, Tommy must fight for herself, her value and personhood when Sonny-Man, Cynthia, and Bill seek to degrade her under the guise of Black solidarity. A working-class Black woman denied the same type of education that the urbane Bill, Sonny-Man, and Cynthia have, Tommy is meant to literally model the worst kind of Black woman for Bill’s triptych on Black womanhood (the actual audacity of this man!). The ideal, the eponymous Wine, is Mother Africa herself, if she were to be personified by a Vogue model. Bill is backed up by Cynthia, who attacks Tommy’s hair (there is no solidarity between Black women on this night), and Sonny-Man (who might be theater’s first hotep) all while Harlem burns. When Tommy realizes that these people are not her friends, she does something astounding to me; she offers them grace while holding them accountable for their failures. Thus, a hero is born. Let’s look at her last words to them:
|TOMMY:||I don't stay mad, it's here today and gone tomorrow. I'm sorry your feelin's got hurt,.. but when I'm hurt I turn and hurt back. Somewhere, in the middle of last night, I thought the old me was gone,… lost forever, and gladly. But today was flippin' time, so black I flipped. Now it's "turn the other cheek" time. If I can go through life other-cheekin' the white folk,... guess y’all can be other-cheeked too. But I'm goin' back to the nitty-gritty crowd, where the talk is we-ness and us-ness. I hate to do it but I have to thank you 'cause I'm walkin' out with much more than I brought in.
(goes over and looks at the queen in the "Wine In The Wilderness" painting)
Tomorrow-Marie had such a lovely yesterday.
(BILL takes her hand, she gently removes it from his grasp)
Bill, I don't have to wait for anybody's by-your-leave to be a "Wine In The Wilderness" woman. I can be it if I wanta,... and I am. I am. I am. I'm not the one you made up and painted, the very pretty lady who can't talk back, ... but I'm "Wine in The Wilderness" ... alive and kickin', me ... Tomorrow-Marie, cussin' and fightin' and lookin' out for my damn self 'cause ain' nobody else 'round to do it, dontcha know.
I swear, dear reader, my jaw dropped reading this passage. In the reading and considering of this play, I had a model that proved I could hold accountable sexism and respectability’s impact upon my life, within my community, and in doing so, be my own hero, be even more truthful. And if no one would listen- white theater, or Black theater, I would still write my peace, leave it for who comes after me. It is with these lessons I write my next play, and all my plays after.
My debt to Childress is endless and I will spend all my days telling the truth, working to get it right, knowing how lucky I am to have had such an astounding model. An astounding hero. ♦
|1. Y’all should read this article, it’s so dope! It’s linked below:
GETHSEMANE HERRON is a playwright from Washington, D.C. She has developed work with JAG Productions, The Hearth, The Fire This Time Festival, The Liberation Theater Company, Roundabout Theatre Company, Ars Nova, and WP Theater, where she is a Resident Artist with Ars Nova’s Play Group and 2020-2022 member of the WP Lab. Additional residencies from VONA and the Millay Colony. Winner of the Columbia@Roundabout Reading Series. Winner of the 45th Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Short Play Festival. Semi-Finalist for the Princess Grace Playwriting Fellowship and the Bay Area Playwrights Festival. Finalist for Space on Ryder Farm’s Creative Residency, and the Van Lier New Voices Fellowship at the Lark. MFA: Columbia University. Proud member of the Dramatist’s Guild. She’s enamored with Sailor Moon and other magical girl warriors. She writes for survivors.
ALICE CHILDRESS (1916 - 1994) was a playwright, novelist, and actress. Other works include the plays Florence (1949) and Trouble in Mind (1955), and the film A Hero Ain't Nothin' but a Sandwich (1978).