Once in a very blue moon, the N-word is like a chef's kiss.

But don't blame a frequent theatergoer for saluting the apt, well-contextualized usage of a slur that many argue should never be uttered. The responsibility, if you will, goes to director Lou Bellamy and his stellar collaborators on Penumbra Theatre's "Wine in the Wilderness."

Through refined artistry, they're showing how off-kilter mess can be turned into revelatory, essential art in their production of Alice Childress' play of manners, which runs through March 17 at the St. Paul playhouse. The must-see show also is Exhibit A of the manifest gifts of Nubia Monks, whose excellent lead performance includes a hootilicious showstopping monologue.

"Wine" is set in 1964 Harlem racked by a riot. After seeking refuge in a bar because her apartment has burned, factory worker Tommy (Monks) is taken to the home of painter Bill Jameson (La'Tevin Alexander) by two of his friends. Writer Sonny-Man (Darrick Mosley) and social worker Cynthia (Vinecia Coleman) believe that Tommy, who is wearing mismatched clothes and an obvious wig, would be a perfect muse for the artist as he is completing a triptych on Black women and wants a model who they all agree is "unfeminine," "vulgar" and "dumb."

But Tommy thinks that she's being set up romantically with Bill. When she finds out the truth, she squeaks the N-word like a doll poked in the stomach.

People have traditionally taken "Wine" to be a commentary on intra-racial class dynamics. There also are themes around Black male and female relations, as well as the struggle that Black women face adapting in a society that does not celebrate their authentic beauty and genius.

All of that comes through as Bill, Sonny-Man and Cynthia show disdain for Tommy and Oldtimer (James Craven), a vagabond who takes refuge in Bill's place with his stash of riot goods.

Bellamy's production goes beyond that gloss. He stages the action on Seitu Jones' poetically jagged set lit sharply by Marcus Dilliard, and in a riot-tinged milieu evoked by Miko Simmons' historic projections and Gregory Robinson's alarm-infused sound score. The director finds metaphors in the play about the roles that Blacks inhabit in America, both in their own imaginations and in the larger consciousness.

Even though the "Wine" characters are of similar background, they play out a charged respectability politics that still echoes today. Svelte and stylish in Dana Rebecca Woods' fashionable costume, Coleman's Cynthia, for example, is coolly condescending to Tommy, telling her she's not feminine enough.

Bill also is curt with his muse and thinks that he can get her to pose by paying her with Chinese takeout. And the educated folks don't even know Oldtimer's real name, even though he's an elder.

Bellamy draws compelling performances from his cast. Monks delivers a precise, physically demarcated turn as Tommy, embodying her high-strung character's mental and emotional state with sudden movements and a lacerating delivery. At one point she lashes out, telling them that they hate Black people even though they profess love for the masses.

As Tommy sheds the layers that have distorted her — both her wig and her crazed attitude — that cadence gives way to a calm authenticity, and we get a chance to appreciate the character's exquisite beauty.

A Penumbra newcomer, Alexander proves a strong scene partner for Monks, bringing muscularity and gravitas as he adds to the luster of leading men who have graced the company's stage. The actor imbues Bill with enough charisma to blunt the revulsion we may feel for some of his actions.

Craven's role is tiny, but he has made it essential and power packed. When Oldtimer unwittingly shares the truth, the veteran actor finds a key that's memorable and priceless.

Mosley's role is woefully underwritten but the actor, dressed in a dashiki, brings elegance and comfort to the stage.

"Wine" is as expansive for the characters as it is for the audience. The assumptions that these figures were carrying at the outset get burned away in their fiery crucible as the play calls to James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" and Frantz Fanon's "Wretched of the Earth," and to poets from Gwendolyn Brooks' "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals" and to Nikki Giovanni's "Ego-Tripping."

The phoenix is not a bird, "Wine" seems to say, but new light rising on a part of the nation's still-smoking soul.

'Wine in the Wilderness'

Who: By Alice Childress. Directed by Lou Bellamy.

Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tue.-Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Ends March 17.

Tickets: $45. 651-224-3180 or penumbratheatre.org.