“Florence” and “Mojo” show two different aspects of the Black experience

1309
Darlene Hope and Chris White sitting on a couch
Mojo: Darlene Hope and Chris White. Photo by: Sarah Haley.

Emotionally powerful and funny, and they will lift your spirits at Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey

Carey Van Driest standing behind a railing and April Armstrong sitting on a pew
Florence: Carey Van Driest and April Armstrong. Photo by: Sarah Haley.

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey presents two one-act plays by the prolific Black playwright Alice Childress at their theater home in Madison. They are, by turns emotionally powerful and funny, and they will lift your spirits. They are well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. They deserve to be seen.

Florence is set in a strictly segregated railway station in the 1949 South. Mrs. Whitney (April Armstrong) is being seen off on a trip to New York by her daughter Marge (Billie Wyatt), to see her other daughter, Florence, an aspiring stage actress. Marge presses her mother to insist that Florence give up her goal of acting and return home to a more conventional role for Black women of the time. 

After Marge leaves, Mrs. Whitney pours out her pride in Florence and her fears for her child’s welfare to the sympathetic station porter (Eric Steven Mills). A white matron, Mrs. Carter (Carey Van Driest), enters the station and strikes up a conversation with Mrs. Whitney. Mrs. Carter, an example of a liberal white of the time, means well, but her well-meant advice underscores her ignorance of the reality of Mrs. Whitney’s life or the meaning underlying Florence’s aspirations. A well-meaning offer by Mrs. Carter causes Mrs. Whitney to finally decide what advice to give Florence.

Mojo: A Black Love Story is set 20 years later in New York. While preparing for a date with his white girlfriend, Teddy (Chris White) gets an unexpected visit from his ex-wife, Irene (Darlene Hope). Irene intends to stay at Teddy’s apartment for a few days while she goes into the hospital for an operation. The two banter and bicker as they go over what originally brought them together and why their marriage fell apart. Teddy and Irene together create a mojo, African magic designed to give luck and strength to the wielder, to get them through their fears for and about themselves and each other. But mojo also means personal magnetism and sex appeal…

Director Lindsay Smiling guides his two casts skillfully through the landmines of interpersonal connections in both plays. In Florence, April Armstrong’s Black mother is fearful for her little girl alone in the big city — Is she getting enough to eat? Is she able to afford the rent? Is she finding work in the theater? — while being bombarded with conflicting opinions of Florence’s ambitions — Is this a dream she should pursue? Wouldn’t it be better if she came back home? Shouldn’t she acquiesce to the normal societal norms for Black women of the time concerning employment?

Darlene Hope and Chris White on stage
Mojo: Chris White and Darlene Hope. Photo by: Sarah Haley.

Armstrong contains all these conflicts within her, uncertain of what she should tell Florence when they meet. In an equally powerful performance, Carey Van Driest’s white matron embodies the contradictions of a type of well-meaning liberal who just can’t understand why all her good words and advice aren’t being as enthusiastically received as she expects.  She can talk the talk, but she can’t quite walk the walk — nor make the leap of true understanding of the mother’s concerns and the daughter’s ambitions. Eric Steven Mills and Billie Wyatt, as the porter and Mrs. Whitney’s daughter, give strong support as advocates for and against Florence’s actions and desires. 

In Mojo, Darlene Hope’s strong-willed, blunt-talking ex-wife is a force of nature, while Chris White’s get-rich-quick fantasizing ex-husband pushes back with every trick in his repertoire. There are old antagonisms between them, but there are also embers of the love they once shared. When Hope’s Irene lets down her guard to express her fears of her medical treatment and what it might mean to her future, White’s Teddy exposes his own nurturing and supportive self.  Together, they make the mojo they both need to get through what lies ahead.

Harlan D. Penn has created a two-sided revolving set. First, it is a small-town station stop, at first glance, common until one notices the prominent signs and other separators of the white and colored races, not uncommon in the South of 1949. Between the two plays, the set turns to reveal a jazzy urban bachelor pad of the late 1960s, smooth and spare with hot pink walls.  The lighting design by Brian Sidney Bembridge and sound design by Steven Beckel rise to the Shakespeare Theatre’s usual standards, while the costumes of Patrice N. Trower perfectly convey the more formal travel attire of the late 40s and the contrasting hip urban sophisticate styles for both men and women in 1969.

Florence, written in 1949 on a dare, and Mojo: A Black Love Story, written in 1970, barely scratched the surface of the immense talent and versatility of Alice Childress as a playwright. (Another example of her range is on stage at Two River Theatre in Red Bank, her 1979 play Wine in the Wilderness.) If you have been searching for emotionally gripping, well-written stories and characters, you need to see the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s fine productions of Florence and Mojo: A Black Love Story. I strongly recommend you do so.

Florence and Mojo: A Black Love Story are presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Theatre on the campus of Drew University in Madison. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600. Certain performances are mask-optional; others are mask-mandatory. Please ask when ordering tickets which type of performance you’ll be attending.

Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first live play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. He works in the box office at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.