Though it covers familiar historical territory, "From the Mississippi Delta" is fresh as a brand-new story. The civil rights movement that Endesha Ida Mae Holland presents may have been a mass political action, but her take on it -- and on life in general -- is very much her own.
Phelia, the character who represents her in this episodic, autobiographical play, is sharp and sassy, born not merely to "be somebody" but to be a star. There's something winningly human about the way she was drawn to the civil rights movement not just for moral reasons, but for a chance to show off: "The whole town was talking 'bout the civil rights workers and me." It's a nice change for Phelia, who previously had the whole town talking about her because of her ability to smoke a cigarette in an orifice other than her mouth.
"From the Mississippi Delta" is adapted from Holland's short stories, and it ends with Phelia reciting a letter she has written to Alice Walker. But audiences may also think of Walker's precursor Zora Neale Hurston and her masterpiece of rural African American life, "Their Eyes Were Watching God." Walker is polemical; she has lessons to teach. But Holland shares with Hurston an open, ardent curiosity about life. Both hardheaded and poetic, tough but not cynical, Holland/Phelia is up for anything.
It's a good thing she was so resilient, because the life she describes in her play was grim. She was raped at 11 by the father of the white child she baby-sat. Her beloved mother was murdered in a racist attack. Yet she emerged fearless. Faced with a burning cross in freezing Minnesota, she pulls on her coat and rushes out enthusiastically to warm herself at it.
This proud, pragmatic, humorous spirit suffuses the play. Rain pours down at Phelia's mother's funeral. The occasion is somber, angry, full of grief. Then a drunk slips in the mud and falls -- splat! -- into the grave. Holland thinks this is hilarious. She knows how little life respects human dignity, but it hasn't embittered her: She's in on the joke.
All of the characters -- women and men, black and white -- are played by three actresses. They share roles, and sometimes they represent separate parts of Phelia. But each also has her chance to make one character particularly hers. Jacqueline Williams mixes sorrow and rage as the abused 11-year-old Phelia, and is also very funny playing a variety of male roles. Phelia in her sassiest mode is played with proud, gawky charm by Sybil Walker. Cheryl Lynn Bruce has deep reserves of dignity, comedy and plain cantankerousness. She plays Phelia's mother, Aint Baby, and does a terrific turn as the cranky Miss Rosebud Dupree, who heaves bricks at anyone who steps on her water meter.
Michael S. Philippi designed the deceptively simple set, basically just a bare stage and the interior/exterior of a shotgun house, its weathered walls adorned with a Royal Crown Cola sign and a ragged poster advertising Ringling Bros. Circus. Chris Phillips's shifting lights carry the characters through space and time without ever losing the audience. And Jonathan Wilson, who directed this production when it originated at Northlight Theatre in Chicago, balances the play's many tones, switching moods on a dime.
Through its simple personal story, "From the Mississippi Delta" evokes a rural, Southern way of life through which the civil rights movement burns like a fire. "It came roaring down Main Street. It cut kinda catty corner up there by Walthall Street, then it turned and came pass Miss Rosebud Dupree's old house... . the South came throwing anything on it that would burn -- and the North sent firetrucks without any water." Holland may avoid didacticism, but in her down-home way, Phelia understands exactly what the civil rights era was all about.
From the Mississippi Delta, by Endesha Ida Mae Holland. With Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Sybil Walker, Jacqueline Williams. Directed by Jonathan Wilson. Set by Michael S. Philippi. Lights by Chris Phillips. Costumes by Jeffrey Kelly. Sound by Rob Milburn and Robert Schoellhorn. At the Kreeger through Jan. 20.