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.
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 www.ShakespeareNJ.org