Fort Worth — The Mississippi Delta, a region defined by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, is a deep part of American lore for a number of reasons. The land is among the most fertile in the country, and very important to the cotton industry. Musically, the Delta blues stylings of Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker still entice young players to learn the form. Hot tamales and Delta raised catfish are still two of the most popular food items from the region. But nestled in with this warmth is the fact that the region was also home to the first White Citizens’ Council and the location of a large percentage of lynchings during the Jim Crow period in the South.
To understand the life of playwright Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland is to recognize that at the time of her birth in 1944, the Mississippi Delta was not a safe place for all. From the Mississippi Delta is her story, snatches of her life buffeted by song and tempered with humor. Staged by DVA Productions under the direction of Tyrone King, this season opener was inviting, entertaining and bittersweet.
Dr. Holland was inspired by Alice Walker’s Revolutionary Petunias poems as she developed this piece. Walker has explained these particular poems as having been written for “those few embattled souls who remain painfully committed to beauty.” The character snapshots in From the Mississippi Delta are of women that struggled to survive within male dominated and often oppressive situations while maintaining a belief in the possibility of beauty.
From the Mississippi Delta is structured unconventionally, vacillating between play structure and parts that are more like written verse. The first eight scenes take place in the South, and the last three in the Midwest. Three actors, Liz Mikel (Woman No. 3), Sheran Keyton (Woman No. 2), and Alexandria Ezell (Woman No. 1), portray 25 characters—black and white, male and female, child and elder—across generations spanning the early 1940s to the mid-1980s.
At the center of the storytelling is Phelia (the playwright), a figure that persisted through dark and unpleasant experiences to eventually achieve success. The most compelling character is Phelia’s mother, Aint Baby, named so not because she was an aunt but because she was no longer the baby of the family.
Sheran Keyton bounded onto the stage as the 11-year old Phelia on her birthday, a day that would end with her rape by a white male employer after his wife pushes her onto his bed. Her innocence punctured, Phelia stumbled through the rubble of her childhood, surviving and eventually attending college, earning a doctorate from the University of Minnesota.
Aint Baby earned money in any way possible but her gift was midwifery. So strong were her skills that she was called the “second doctor lady.” In time, the white doctors acknowledged her abilities and sometimes deferred to her for difficult births.
What works in this piece are the individual stories of the characters, and the actors’ performances. Some of the stories are dark such as the death of Aint Baby from burns sustained during a KKK set house fire, but Holland interjects humor where it is most needed without being heavy-handed. Keyton, Mikel and Ezell work well together. There are not too many things better than having Liz Mikel and Sheran Keyton sing for you. Mikel was quite wonderful as Aint Baby, giving her such presence that it was impossible to stop watching her.
Less effective was the set design which was basically flat, leaving a narrow passageway for the actors’ entrances. A different configuration, perhaps an L-shape, might have relaxed the playing area and strengthened the effectiveness of the shadow work.
From the Mississippi Delta ends with the reading of a letter Dr. Holland wrote to Alice Walker shortly before Walker won the Pulitzer Prize. Holland asked that Walker consider adding the women honored in From the Mississippi Delta, in particular Aint Baby, to her revolutionary petunias.