From the Mississippi Delta, Congo Square Theatre Company, at Chicago Dramatists. From Mississippi to Minnesota, the circle of love is unbroken in Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s vibrant testament to the struggle for equal rights. Her saga stands for many survival stories as “Phelia” escapes the killing fields of Greenwood, Mississippi; earns fame, bought by courage in the civil rights movement; and achieves academic triumphs. Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s revival reiterates the success of Northlight Theatre’s 1990 production, which proved that the right details in a script can create pictures so vivid that years later you’re certain you saw what you only heard.
Libya V. Pugh, Ann Joseph, and TaRon Patton flesh out a tumultuous cast of characters: good-time girls, carnival barkers, cheapskate white matrons, invalid rapists, freedom marchers, dumbass drunks, holy-rolling preachers, country kids. At the heart of Holland’s story is her mother, Ain’t Baby, the town bulwark who doubled as laundress and miracle-working midwife. Patton turns this flawed icon–a towering, tragic figure who distrusted and was consumed by change–into someone you wish you knew. Patton also tears us up as the town loony, who hurls bricks at anyone who messes with her water meter.
Thanks to Pugh’s and Joseph’s dedicated portrayals of Phelia, we share her amazement as she struggles to make sense of a south that can be even warmer than the weather, then kill without warning or reason. The hymns punctuating this epic carry a special burden: this much consolation should never have been needed.