Playwright: Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D.
At: Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre at the Noyes Cultural Arts Ctr, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets: $15; Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre; 847-866-5915. Runs through: July 1
There is something marvelous about any story of overcoming a difficult life and finding your joy. There is something even more marvelous when the protagonist is a Black woman in the United States. Endesha Ida Mae Holland, Ph.D., tells one such story in the autobiographical play From the Mississippi Delta. This inspirational story follows Holland from childhood through her successful playwright career, and it also allows us to meet some of the people who influenced her along the way.
From the Mississippi Delta is told by three actressesAsia Jackson, Jazzma Pryor and Elana Elyceaccompanied by harmonica played by Nukwi Nu. Stories from Holland's past and her mother's life ( and death ) are told and dramatized by the three women taking on multiple roles as well as occasional singing. The key characters of Holland and her mother, Ida Mae ( better known as Aunt Baby or The Second Doctor Lady for her midwiving skills ), are generally handled by Jackson and Elyce, respectively, though there are times within the play that Pryor also plays Holland and even one where she is played chorally by all three women.
If that sounds potentially confusing, don't worry: It isn't. The structure works very well in conveying both the emotional atmosphere and the stories themselves. ( As far as actual atmosphere is concerned, the Noyes Cultural Arts Center air conditioning was down on opening weekend, simulating an accidental transportation to the humid delta itself. The AC will be working by the second weekend. )
Director Tim Rhoze handles the material deftly, and the performances and multiple characterizations he gets from his cast are remarkable. All three are excellent at physicalizing different characters, many of whom can be instantly identified, once we have met them, through facial and vocal contortions. This is a real actors' play. Rhoze's simple set allows them free rein to invent, letting us get to know these people and their struggles intimately.
It is also a powerful historical document. This is a story that begins in the mid-20th century and takes us through to the present. During the playwright's lifetime, she has dealt with the Klan and other racist groups, Jim Crow, and other mechanisms designed to hold Black Americans down, and she was part of the dawn of the civil rights movement.
Despite the heat and humidity inside the theatre, this production fascinated me from start to finish. I'm certain that it will be even stronger in a cooler room when the performers don't have to contend with loud fans running.