Monday, October 31, 2022


By Ruth Ross

Award-winning Black playwright Alice Childress is having quite a moment!

An acclaimed version of her first full-length dramatic play, Trouble in Mind, ran on Broadway from October 2021 through January 2022. In Red Bank, Two River Theater’s recent production of Wine in the Wilderness opened to critical acclaim. And, as the penultimate offering of their 60th season, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison has mounted a splendid production of two of Childress’s one-act plays, Florence and Mojo!

All this tells us that it’s time to sit up and take notice of this high school dropout/autodidact, acknowledged as "the only African American woman to have written, produced and published plays for four decades."

The pairing of these two plays is genius; in fact, their plots could be mirror images. Both revolve around an encounter: a chance meeting in Florence and a purposeful one in Mojo. The former involves a misunderstanding perpetrated by assumed white supremacy and Black folks’ trust. The latter lays bare long-held secrets and peels back the screen of seeming success to reveal the abject poverty and rampant humiliation experienced by Black people under Jim Crow.

Under Lindsay Smiling’s very able direction, the action delicately but pointedly unfolds. In Florence, April Armstrong is a marvel as Mrs. Whitney (a k a Mama; left, with Van Driest), upright, upstanding, no nonsense, especially in the scenes with her concerned daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt) and the amiable station porter (Eric Steven Mills). Armstrong’s portrayal of her character’s dignity makes it even more poignant as we watch it crumble when she realizes that the white woman has misconstrued her appeal for help. As the white woman, Mrs. Carter, Carey Van Driest’s equally robust performance elicits the audience’s (and Mrs. Whitney’s) disdain as she cluelessly chatters on about her novelist brother who knows so much about Negro life and people that his friends call him an honorary Negro!

In the companion piece Mojo, the 1969 reunion of a once-wed couple in his swanky New York City apartment is fraught with memories and emotion. While Teddy seems to have “made it”—albeit by running numbers and having a white girlfriend—his ex-wife Irene’s life has taken a different, grittier trajectory. Chris White (left, with Darlene Hope) is silky smooth as the suave Teddy, living the good life far from a childhood when he, as a nine-year-old, hauled tenement trash with his father as the rats climb the dumbwaiter ropes and scurry through the walls and ceilings. Perpetually upbeat, White’s Teddy reveals his anger and disgust at having to do that job, but he quickly resumes his optimistic attitude as he puts it behind him. As Irene, Darlene Hope is more fragile, still seething at having to work as an attendant in a white restroom, cleaning up other women’s “funk” in a place she cannot even use. And her sadness about a dark secret is palpable and heartbreaking.

Harlan D. Penn has designed two different sets, each evoking a vastly different era and location. The railing separating white and “colored” passengers is even more affecting than the signs above the restroom doors; it separates the two women, but barely; indeed, when Mrs. Whitney comes around it into the white space (right), we hold our breaths. In Teddy’s apartment, the neon lights and colorful paintings echo the psychedelic style of the late sixties which clash big time with the secrets revealed there and looks more like a stage set for a “performed” successful life rather than where people really live. 

Sound designer Steven Beckel provides Southern blues music for Florence and African drumming to reference the new attention to Black African roots in Mojo. Patrice N. Trower’s costumes are really rooted in the two eras, e.g., a mink stole for Mrs. Carter, hats, gloves and suits for both women in Florence, and patent leather shoes and purple suit for the hip Teddy and bell-bottom jeans for Irene in Mojo. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting is most evocative in the neon hues of Teddy’s apartment.

Childress described her work as trying to portray the have-nots in a have society, saying: "My writing attempts to interpret the 'ordinary' because they are not ordinary. Each human is uniquely different. Like snowflakes, the human pattern is never cast twice. We are uncommonly and marvelously intricate in thought and action, our problems are most complex and, too often, silently borne.” These sentiments are strongly displayed in these two one-act plays where the lives of Black people in two distinct locations and two different eras are laid bare to reveal that, although much has changed in the 20 years between the two plots, a great deal remains the same.

Nevertheless, the optimism conveyed in both plays gives cause for hope, a hope that Alice Childress must have felt when writing them and the hope we feel that things can be better today.

American poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without the words, / And never stops at all.” This production by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey of two plays by a little-known artist could be considered risky, but the elegant, polished performances are an unexpected gift and a testament to the ever-present optimism that is theater.

Florence and Mojo will be presented on the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre’s Main Stage (36 Madison Avenue, Madison, on the campus of Drew University) from October 26–November 13. Patrons can purchase tickets by calling the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or by visiting

Photos by Sarah Haley