Northlight Theatre

Most autobiographical stories cover only half a lifetime, more or less. Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s covers one and a half. From the Mississippi Delta begins with Holland’s mother, Ida Mae Holland, who was born to a family of sharecroppers in Quinto, Mississippi. That story was more than half over before Holland even entered the world. By then Ida Mae Holland had moved from Quinto to Greenwood, and after taking in enough laundry to finally quit and open a rooming house, she was learning to become a midwife.

Ida Mae Holland rose to such prominence as a midwife that she was asked to assist the white doctors at the local hospital–and thus earned her nickname, Second Doctor Lady. But eventually her relationship with the white community soured. The hospital’s adamant refusal to admit black patients–even in life-threatening emergencies–had something to do with that, as did her daughter’s growing involvement in the civil rights movement. One night, Klansmen broke into Ida Mae’s house and set it on fire. She perished in the blaze.

Some 20 or so years later, Holland pieced her memories together into a three-character play that retells her mother’s life and her own in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Paul Sills’s story theater–one actor, the storyteller, narrates while the other two act out the story. In 11 related tales, Holland recounts her mother’s rise to a position of respect in the community and her own eventual escape from Mississippi and subsequent rise to a position of even greater respect.

In lesser hands, such self-congratulation would be unbearable. But Holland is too clever a storyteller to fall into that narcissist’s trap. Much of the play is focused squarely on her mother, and those scenes that concern Holland’s often wayward youth are told in a likable, self-deprecating manner. Her tales never stray into the sickeningly sentimental, nor do they become bitter tirades against the racism and cruelty of Mississippi’s white-supremacist culture.

Make no mistake, Holland’s stories contain moments of incredible pain. In one scene, the 11-year-old Phelia is raped by a rich white man whose child she has regularly cared for. In another harrowing scene, her mother delivers a breech-birth baby. But it helps that Holland has chosen to tell her story through the somewhat distanced medium of the narrator. The breech birth, for example, is described by Phelia and her sister, who watch it through the window.

It also helps that director Jonathan Wilson has cast three such versatile actresses–Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Sybil Walker, and Jacqueline Williams–as the three women who tell Holland’s tales. It’s hard not to admire the energy of these actresses, who must not only play five or six characters (women and men) throughout the play, but are capable of handling all the story’s emotional swings. They fully re-create Holland’s world, using only their bodies, their voices, and a very limited number of props.

The production does suffer from one flaw: there is something vaguely disquieting, even alienating, about watching a play about dirt-poor Mississippi while sitting in the nice, clean, prosperous-looking Northlight Theatre. Holland’s stripped-down play could be performed almost anywhere–in a high school gym, under a tent, on a platform set up outside. If, God forbid, the Northlight Theatre burned to the ground tomorrow, Wilson’s talented cast could perform the play in the parking lot.

At $20 to $24 a ticket, any future Dr. Hollands cannot afford to see From the Mississippi Delta. That’s a shame–one and a half lifetimes is a long gestation period for any play. It would be nice if this one could reach a wider audience.