University Theatre presents ‘Wine in the Wilderness’ March 7-17


By Kari Dickinson

When audiences enter the Mitchell Theatre for University Theatre’s newest production, “Wine in the Wilderness,” they may be surprised to see a camera crew setting up as if to film a television show. 

Promo image for Wine in the Wilderness“We’ve set it in a TV studio,” says director Mark Hairston (Mark H.), an assistant professor in the School of Education’s Department of Theatre and Drama. “And so the concept is that the audience enters, and they are the live studio audience for a TV filming of this play.” 

That’s because the world premiere for this little-known play, by celebrated writer Alice Childress, was, in fact, televised — at a time when televisions were becoming more ubiquitous in American households.

For many people in the U.S., Mark H. says, “it was the first time that they were seeing Black faces, Black people in their actual homes.” 

As camera crews captured images from the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, “it must have been shocking to folks who were closed off from having to deal with a lot of that,” he says. “But then also, in the Black community, you had folks not wanting to show those kinds of images, who wanted to present a more wholesome and ‘respectable’ image of Blackness.”

Childress’ play is set in 1964. As race riots blaze on the streets outside his Harlem home, painter Bill Jameson works feverishly to complete a triptych depicting his vision of Black womanhood. While he struggles to find his final muse — the “messed up chick” — his friends discover the perfect model in Tommy, a woman they meet at a bar after she’s been burned out of her home in the riots. However, Tommy is more than she seems, and her presence changes everything.

Mark H. explains that when the play first premiered in 1970, Childress was a well-known writer and a key figure within the Black arts movement. However, the play didn’t initially get a lot of attention. 

“A lot of people don’t know this work,” he says. “But I love this play. It’s very interesting to me. I love that it’s a conversation about the Black community from the inside. It has a universal message, and it’s speaking about things that I think a lot of people can relate to.” 

Specifically, he adds, “it’s talking to Black communities and how we are complicit in denigrating ourselves and judging ourselves, and the levels of power and status within our communities.”

The Department of Theatre and Drama partnered with faculty and students in UW–Madison’s Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies Program to develop the show, including Lily Z. Shell, who served as dramaturg; actor Quanda Johnson, who plays “Old Timer”; and Professor Sandra Adell, a leading scholar of African American drama and the work of Alice Childress.

Through support from the Lorraine Hansberry Fund, Harri Horsley, a visiting assistant professor of costume design at James Madison University, joined the team as guest costume and wig designer, lending expertise in the political and aesthetic context of Childress’ play and its settings. Jyreika Guest, an actor, dancer, and intimacy director based in Chicago, joined as intimacy director.

Mark H. praises all of the UW–Madison students who have been working hard to bring this play to life. 

“We have a great cast, crew, and design team, and everybody is really just diving into this material that is very tough,” he says. “We have an incredible stage management team. Our stage manager (Lucy Cowen) is a freshman, and she’s been amazing, and so is Nayeh Zouhon, our assistant stage manager. That duo is incredible, and I’m super proud.” 

Actors Christian Carter and Jnae Thompson rehearse for University Theatre’s production of “Wine in the Wilderness,” by Alice Childress.

Mark H. wants the audience to be immersed in the world of the play, from the time they enter the space. An exhibit in the Mitchell Theatre lobby will share background information on aspects of the play’s world, such as the 1964 Harlem riots and media at the time.

“I wanted this project to be expansive, to burst beyond the doors of the theatre space itself,” he says. “The world we’ve built is really rich, and I think it’s something that the university hasn’t seen yet.” 

“Wine in the Wilderness” will run from March 7-17 in the Ronald E. Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall. Get your tickets now at artsticketing.wisc.edu or by calling 608-265-2787.

There will be talkbacks following the performances on Thursday, March 14, and Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 pm. 

Content Advisory: This play contains mature content and language including racial epithets.

This production is made possible through generous support from the Anonymous Block Grant, the Lorraine Hansberry Fund, and the Margaret Emma Williams Fund.

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