Three Black women onstage in front of a set resembling a wooden cabin. The woman in the center is in a wheelchair and the women on either side of her appear to be dancing.
From left: Jenise Sheppard, Arielle Leverett, and LaKecia Harris in From the Mississippi Delta at Lifeline Theatre Credit: Suzanne Plunkett

I first saw Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s autobiographical From the Mississippi Delta over 30 years ago in the old Goodman studio theater space. Though it’s been revived many times since, I hadn’t seen it again until the current Lifeline and Pegasus Theatre Chicago coproduction at Lifeline. It’s a testament to Holland’s gift for dialogue and anecdote that there were still moments that I remembered decades later. Ilesa Duncan’s production, featuring a nimble cast of three women playing multiple roles (LaKecia Harris, Arielle Leverett, Jenise Sheppard), does an admirable job of breathing new life into the show for which Holland (who died in 2006) remains best known.

From the Mississippi Delta
Through 6/18: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2:30 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM; audio description and touch tour Sun 5/28 (touch tour 1 PM), open captions Fri 6/9; Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood, 773-761-4477,, $45 ($35 seniors and active/retired military personnel with ID, $15 students with ID)

The story, set in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the Jim Crow and civil rights years, follows Holland’s own mother, Ida Mae Holland (colloquially known as Aint Baby), as she raises her kids and delivers babies as a midwife for both Black and white women. As young Endesha (known as Phelia in the play) grows, she experiences a horrifying rape from the white man whose wife employs her as a babysitter. She also watches her mother work miracles with a difficult delivery, tries to work as an (underage) exotic dancer in a traveling show, and finally experiences a political awakening that takes her from organizing with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in her hometown (which leads to violent racist backlash) to moving to Minnesota for college. 

The play’s structure means that we move from story to story without a great deal of connective tissue, and sometimes it feels like we could use a bit more interstitial material to ground us in the timeline. But the actors move so smoothly among all the different characters that it’s not too hard to just surrender to the tales. These stories also often move from comic to tragic in moments, but as Holland’s invocation of the murder of Emmett Till early on reminds us, for Black people in the Jim Crow south, danger was a constant shadowy presence.

Yet it’s also a joyful show, with Ricky Harris’s music direction and Tanji Harper’s choreography providing moments for the cast to cut loose and show us that they are not there as representatives of trauma porn, but rather as embodiments of real women who took chances, made mistakes, and refused to be silenced.