Tacoma Little Theatre closes 105th season with Lively Performance of From the Mississippi Delta

by Dave R. Davison

Left to right: Whitney Crawford & Canae Machelle Gray

Tacoma Little Theatre is bringing its 105th theatrical season to a close with a run of Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta. Directed by Michelle Blackmon, Mississippi Delta is the best known of the plays penned by the academic, Civil Rights activist and playwright. The work is subtitled “A Dramatic Biography by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, PH.D.” (Endesha is a Swahili name meaning “she who drives herself and others forward.”) The play premiered off-Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theatre in Manhattan November 1991 to May 1992. Holland authored a memoir of the same title, published in 1997.

The play is written to be performed by a three-member cast who play a variety of characters in a series of short scenes drawn from the life of the playwright and tracing her personal odyssey from the Jim Crow South to the academic world of Minnesota. From humble beginnings, Holland followed her mother’s advice and example to “be somebody,” and reached the heights of American culture.

The cast members are each clad in a dress of one of the primary colors. Woman 1 (in blue) is played by Canae Machelle Gray, Woman 2 (in yellow) is played by Whitney Crawford, and Woman 3 (in red) is played by Sonia Alexis. Each of the three puts in a stalwart performance. Alexis particularly is the featured performer in one of the most riveting scenes of the entire evening: scene 4, “Second Lady Doctor.” Here, the mother of Phelia (the name of Holland’s alter ego, who narrates much of the play and is performed alternately by Crawford and Gray) is shown as a midwife gifted with supernatural powers, intuition and saving ability that people of every societal level are obliged to acknowledge. Aint Baby, which is what everyone calls this magical midwife — even her own children — is seemingly in touch with traditions of midwifery going back to primordial human beginnings. As such, she is a person of precious worth, whose story is thankfully preserved here in this play.

Left to right: Sonia Alexis, Whitney Crawford & Canae Machelle Gray

Alexis then transforms herself again in the very next scene to the shrunken, spidery figure of Miss Rosebud Dupree, who sits on her porch all day guarding her water meter. The scene gives comic relief after the edge-of-the-seat suspense of the midwife scene.

As narrators, Crawford and Gray flesh the scenes out verbally as Alexis embodies the action.

Drawn from the lives of African American people living in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era, Mississippi Delta does portray some interracial encounters that are downright grim. For example, Crawford is tasked with depicting the 11-year-old Phelia’s betrayal by a white family for whom she worked. She is almost literally made into the victim placed upon a sacrificial altar.

Left to right: Canae Machelle Gray, Whitney Crawford & Sonia Alexis

She entered the big house with the eyes of a giddy girl, by the time she leaves, the house is described as a tomb and our narrator tells the audience that she now gazes out on the world with the eyes of an old woman.

The scene that garners the most laughs from the audience is Gray’s depiction of Phelia’s short-lived career as an exotic dancer, which entails interesting use of tobacco products.

The course of the play is punctuated by song, some of which blossom into beautiful three-part harmonies among the cast members.

The bulk of the story is set in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood, and much of the storytelling revolves around the figure of Aint Baby. But the action takes the protagonist out of the South and up to the frozen land of Minnesota and the world of the Academy. Holland’s childhood memories are both powerful and painful in their depiction of people living lives worthy of story and legend, who are simultaneously having to live in a separate and unequal social sphere, which is kept truncated by design. Coercive violence is kept in the hands of the state but is also wielded by extrajudicial entities that operate outside of officialdom. The threat of repressive violence flows as an undercurrent beneath the fabric of the stories, tragically breaking to the surface from time to time.

Left to right: Whitney Crawford, Canae Machelle Gray & Sonia Alexis

Special mention must go to Alonna Julianne Hall’s lighting effects and Dylan Twiner’s sound design for producing some beguiling interludes throughout the show. TLT’s production of From the Mississippi Delta bounces along and keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end.

TLT features specialty drinks for each of its main shows. Interested theater goers have a choice of “The Delta,” “the Water Meter,” or “Mississippi Iced Tea” for this one.

The run time of the show is shy of two hours, with a 15-minute intermission between acts one and two. This show is recommended for ages 16+.

Photos courtesy of Dennis K Photography.

From the Mississippi Delta

Through June 23 with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. (Pay What You Can performance Thursday, June 20 at 7:30 p.m.)

Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N I Street, Tacoma WA

$29 adults, $27 military, seniors and students

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