The Common Ground Theatre, that welcoming, unpretentious, bare-bones space in west Durham, is once again the venue for high-value, low-cost dramatics. The New Traditions Theatre has opened its 2008 season there with an effective production of Wine in the Wilderness, an Alice Childress [see] play from 1969 that remains remarkably fresh and relevant despite its topicality. NTT couldn’t have known when the play was scheduled that it would be following on the heels of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s remarkable speech about race in America, but the timing is perfect. If white America mostly doesn’t know what goes on in black churches, it is also widely ignorant of black theater. New Traditions, a fairly new group composed mostly of black theater artists from the Triangle, is well positioned to jump into the subject Obama has busted open.

The plot of Wine in the Wilderness, which takes place during a 1964 Harlem race riot, involves Bill (Steffon Sharpless, well-spoken but a little stiff), a misogynistic manly man and intellectual painter who is creating a triptych depicting the past, present, and future of Black Womanhood. He’s got the innocent young girl, and the mythic future African Queen, but he’s stuck for a model for the central panel of the present-day woman. Degraded is what he has in mind: ignorant, dirty, demanding, and self-demeaning. Bill’s educated, “activist” friends Sonny-Man (Trevor Johnson in a dashiki) and Cynthia (Donnis Collins in false eyelashes and mini-dresses), who are out drinking in a bar during the riot, meet a woman they think will do perfectly. Tommy — Tomorrow Marie (wonderfully acted by Barbette Hunter) — didn’t have much; and now she has nearly nothing, her apartment having been destroyed in the day’s looting and burning. Going to Bill’s studio with Cynthia and Sonny-Man, she gets taken in by Bill’s blandishments, agrees to model for his painting, and is duly humiliated, but ends up turning everyone around with her dignity, wisdom, and knowledge. The cast is rounded out by Old Timer, a classic sad buffoon, played by Geraud Staton, whose interesting portrait paintings fill the set he designed.

The script is not terribly subtle, and the play definitely falls into the art-as-agent-for-social-change category. The happy ending is pat. Wine in the Wilderness is, however, replete with sharp characterizations, satiric mockery, incisive speeches, and huge hope for better ways of living. And, it is funny — lots of little zingers shot right to target in a deliciously off-handed manner.

Director Dr. John Rogers Harris has done a great job with the timing, and the emotional ebb and flow of the piece. His physical staging works very well, and the set’s believability is increased by Shannon O’Neill’s sound design. On opening night, the show was a little rough around the edges; but as the actors relaxed into their roles, it began to smooth out and pick up velocity. Among the strong ensemble cast, Geraud Staton is particularly effective; and Barbette Hunter is a knockout. There are lots of reasons to see Wine in the Wilderness, such as the pleasure of laughing together at the same pointed jokes in racially mixed company; but Hunter’s outstanding performance as Tommy is first among them.

New Traditions Theatre presents Wine in the Wilderness Thursday-Saturday, March 20-22 and 27-29, at 8 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students and seniors). 919/698-3870. New Traditions Theatre: