Greenwood, Miss., circa 1955, offers a spare, hard life for a black girl born in a shotgun shack at the edge of the cotton fields. For most folks that Phelia knows, success is just staying out of trouble. By that measure, she's a miserable failure. Rebellious, angry, aching to get away, she's learned one hard lesson early: In this life, you have to take the bull by the horns. Because "either you throw the bull or the bull throws you."
As it turns out, Phelia throws the bull. In "From the Mississippi Delta," a fictionalized stage memoir, Phelia is a stand-in for author Endesha Ida Mae Holland, a university professor who adopted the name Endesha after she met civil rights workers in the early 1960s and went north to go to college.
Endesha is Swahili for "driver," and as the play makes clear, it's an appropriate name. A high school dropout who worked briefly as a prostitute, Holland went on to earn her doctorate and become a professor of theater as well as a successful playwright. "From the Mississippi Delta" made a huge splash off-Broadway in the early 1990s and earned her a write-up in Time magazine.
The play is now enjoying a lively production by African Continuum Theatre Company at the H Street Playhouse. ACTCo is on a winning streak this season. In this production, the company continues its practice of marrying a powerful text with adept performers and effective design to render a visually satisfying and emotionally rewarding experience.
Scot Reese nimbly directs Jewell Robinson, Lynn Chavis and Thembi Duncan as they trade off playing Phelia, her mother, known as "Aint Baby," and a series of other characters who populate Holland's memories. Holland marries narration and dramatization, frequently using two and sometimes all three actresses to play the same character all at once. The actresses alternate lines briefly, then spin off into other parts, yet we're never confused about who is who. Reese makes this potentially confusing device work. And costumer LeVonne Lindsay assists in the rapid transitions by outfitting the women with rough, woven shawls that double as other costume pieces or props -- a swaddled baby or laundry.
And the characterizations are vivid. Duncan plays young Phelia with the arched back of rebellion, then slides into a slack-jawed masculine slouch as a lecherous young man who turns out to watch Phelia's disastrous debut as an exotic dancer. Chavis is equally malleable. She plays an eager 11-year-old Phelia with the lightness of youth, then drops her voice and draws herself into the slow, heavy gait of a middle-aged man as she plays Warren, Aint Baby's beau.
There's no question, though, that the honey-voiced Robinson anchors the show as Phelia's mother, the stern, confident midwife whose skill has earned her the respect of blacks and whites alike. Aint Baby's is the moral voice that steers Phelia's conscience at her angriest and most reckless moments. The Freedom Riders offer Phelia a constructive channel for her rage, but it's her mother who has laid the foundation of resilience that she will come to rely on when her activities bring on a horrifying retribution.
"From the Mississippi Delta," by Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Directed by Scot Reese. Set, Timothy J. Jones; costumes, LeVonne Lindsay; lights, Harold F. Burgess II; props, Greta Dowling. Approximately 90 minutes. Produced by African Continuum Theatre Company at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE, through April 27. Call 202-529-5764.