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By Bruce Chadwick



Originally published: 10/30/2022

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

Writing plays, books and newspaper columns for more than 40 years, Alice Childress is recognized as one of the leading chroniclers of African American backstories, stories buried by time but still priceless and emotionally poignant. Bonnie Monte, Managing Director of Shakespeare Theater of New JerseyAlways on the lookout for unpraised work, she has found two of Childress’ plays. Florence and mojo, and combined them into a duo of pieces. They opened at the Drew University Theater in Madison last weekend.

The first and shorter is Florence, the story of a black woman in a train station in the deep south and what racism has done to her. The second, later, in 1969, tells the story of two divorced black men who come together for what may be their last time, and how they shape and reshape their lives. The first is a nice historical look at racism in a train station with “white” and “colored” toilets and seating areas. The second, “Mojo,” is exactly what Monte was looking for, a wild and explosive game that will mess with your brain and chill your body. The plays together are a great piece of theater and a breathtaking, mind-blowing look at not just racism, but human emotions. They are also not just a look at life in the 1940s and 1960s, but also today.

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

In a one-act play Florence, a young girl takes her mother to a train station to board a train to New York to visit a relative. The teenager tells the mother that she MUST take the relative back home down south where she belongs. The girl soon leaves and a white woman walks in and engages the mother in conversation about her trip to New York amidst a lengthy racial talk. In the end, Mom has to decide whether the relative is better off in post-war 1949 New York or in a small Deep South town seething with racism, such as the train station.

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

Florencehowever, is the teapot with some fire underneath, slowly simmering, preparing the audience mojo, a much longer and deeper one-act play about the reunion of the divorced couple. This play has a number of storylines between the couple and could make a six-part TV miniseries. However, to her credit, playwright Childress keeps all the storylines together and still leaves you breathless by the end of her story. mojo is a small masterpiece of American theater.

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

In it, professional gambler Teddy, a very tall, skinny black man in his forties, is on the phone with his white girlfriend when his ex-wife Irene arrives unannounced with some really bad news. She is apparently very ill with cancer and wanted to see Teddy one last time. That charged, sweet memory moment quickly fades as they begin to tell their story, one of the tragedies. Irene tells Teddy that she wanted to have a child and chose Teddy to be her father because of his good looks and manliness. However, Teddy believes it was his personality. Then, unknown to Teddy, Irene gave the child away and has regretted that decision ever since. A stunned teddy must deal with it as the story continues.

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Ex-wife Irene never had the life she wanted and ended up cleaning toilets. Now terrified of hospital tests she will have to take fairly soon, she has chosen Africa, the birthplace of so many African Americans who came to the United States. She is sure that she will “find” herself again in Africa. She has scrapbooks and magazines about Africa that she shares with Teddy. He’s in no hurry to go, but she almost convinced him. Deep down, he thinks that walking will cheer her up and maybe chase her down the path of cancer, which of course won’t be the case. This story dominates the rest of the play. In it, Teddy invents a wonderful life story for his child that Irene gave away. He tells Irene that she is beautiful and wonderful as she dances to an African drumbeat. Most importantly, he tells her that he has always loved her. will they go Will the cancer go away? Will they be reunited with their child?

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

They sit in the theater audience at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey and physically mourn the loss of this couple. They have already had a long life, and yet their illness and missing child threaten to bring them down. It’s a story like so many stories, black and white, in America. What will happen to Teddy and Irene? What will become of us all?

The play is so successful because director Lindsay Smiling did a good job of drawing character from both characters without slowing down the emotionally simmering story. They are there, on stage, in spirit, with the couple flinching at the tribulations of their lives, always afraid and yet always hopeful.

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

The director receives outstanding performances from Darlene Hope as Irene and Christ White as Teddy. In which Florence Story, also directed by Smiling, features outstanding performances from April Armstrong, Eric Steven Mills, Carey Van Driest and Billie Wyatt.

These two pieces show life in the Deep South in the 1940s and in New York in the 1960s, good and bad, and always timid. The problem with plays is that the problems people faced in those eras are still there today, and I’m sure playwrights will continue to write about our problems today.

Don’t miss it – it’s great.

A look back at African American history and happiness in life, good and bad

Florence and mojo runs at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey through November 13. click here for ticket information.

PHOTOS BY SARAH HALEY


Bruce Chadwick was an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News for 23 years. He later worked as an arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a PhD in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on US history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.


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