Two one-act plays by Alice Childress, “Florence” (1949) and “Mojo” (1970), are currently being presented together by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison, with direction by Lindsay Smiling. Though they complement each other well, they have some major differences — due partially, I’m sure, to the different eras in which they were written, but also due to the different ways in which Childress tells her stories.
“Florence,” which is shorter than “Mojo” and is performed first, has four characters, but the core of it is an encounter between Mama (April Armstrong) and Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest). Mama has come to a train station in an unnamed Southern town; she plans to travel to New York, where her daughter, Florence, is attempting to build a career for herself as an actress and having a hard time of it. Acting opportunities for Black woman are scarce, and the one role in a “real play” she was able to land, briefly, was a small, demeaning part.
Mama plans to try to persuade Florence to give up on acting and come back home, but appears to have mixed feelings about it. Her other daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt), who accompanies her to the station, is more adamant.
“She ain’t gonna get rich up there and we can’t afford to do for her,” Marge tells her mother. “You got to be strict on her. She got notions a Negro woman don’t need.”
Marge leaves, and Mama remains at the station, waiting. She makes small talk with a friendly porter (Eric Steven Mills) before Mrs. Carter, who is also traveling to New York, shows up.
Mrs. Carter and Mama chat, as they wait, though they have to stay in different areas (there are separate benches for whites and Blacks, as well as separate restrooms). You can feel the tension: Society doesn’t want these two women talking to each other, or encroaching on each other’s space (as happens a couple of times, with the tension escalating). Mrs. Carter is friendly and well-meaning, but is a product of her times, and makes condescending assumptions about Mama and her family. Mama is hurt, but her pain helps lead to an inspirational revelation at the play’s conclusion.
“Mojo,” I thought, didn’t work quite as well.
It is set in 1969, in the swanky apartment of Teddy (Chris White), a middle-aged Black man who has become rich, or at least comfortable, running a ghetto numbers game (an illegal lottery). His ex-wife Irene (Darlene Hope) surprises him with a visit. Though they have been divorced for many years, they have come back into each others’ lives from time to time, and there still is a lot of mutual affection there.
They talk about the past and the present — Irene has revelations to share about both — and reconfirm their bond. Not romantically, but still on a deep level.
It’s 20 years after “Florence.” The world has changed. And much of their discussion has to do with those years: Their humble beginnings, their growth, and the need for more change. “Mojo” ends, as “Florence” does, with a kind of epiphany.
Childress packs as many dramatic moments as she can into the conversation and Hope, in the meatier of the two roles, does a great job of conveying her character’s intense emotions. But still, I think a play such as “Florence,” where you see a life-changing moment unfold in real time, almost always has more impact than a play like “Mojo,” where characters spend most of their time talking about the lives they have lived.
Childress — who died in 1994 at the age of 77 — may have been underappreciated during her lifetime, but a work of hers was performed on Broadway for the first time in late 2021 and early 2022, with the Tony-nominated production of “Trouble in Mind.” And this production of “Florence” and “Mojo” has overlapped, partially, with the now-closed run of Childress’ “Wine in the Wilderness” (1969) at the Two River Theater in Red Bank.
“Having lived through both the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, her writing is undoubtedly political, painting an unflinching portrait of the African American Experience,” Smiling writes in the program. “Yet her characters refused to be defined by the conditions they find themselves in.”
That was certainly true for “Wine in the Wilderness,” and for “Florence” and “Mojo” as well.
Remaining performances of “Florence” and “Mojo” at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey take place at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University in Madison, Nov. 8-9 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 10-12 at 8 p.m.; and Nov. 12-13 at 2 p.m. Visit ShakespeareNJ.org.
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