History and literature are full of inspirational stories about exceptional people rising from humble origins and accomplishing heroic feats. From the Mississippi Delta, the autobiographical drama by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, is such a tale, and as presented by the Marin Theatre Company (directed by Tazewell Thompson) is chock-full of the heroes, villains, and more ordinary folk Holland knew before she made her way to eventual success in the academic world.
The show is lovely to look at (set design by Richard Olmstead) and full of such infectious good will that it seems mean-spirited to greet it with anything but unqualified praise; but while Holland's life is clearly worthy of admiration, as a playwright she has softened the lifeblood of drama — confrontation — and offered instead something closer to genial amusement.
Delta appears designed to appeal to young audiences and owes its structure to a theatrical hybrid called story theater, in which characters both narrate a tale and act it out. This format, most successfully packaged by Paul Sills in the early '70s, is usually applied to simple folk and fairy tales, and entertains by coming up with irreverent readings, surprise endings, and clever staging. Story theater is about the medium as opposed to the message. It aims to heighten our awareness of the artificiality of theater, to allow us to re-examine or deconstruct the familiar. Since Holland is presenting a world she assumes is distinctly unfamiliar to most of us, this particular format does not turn out to be the best one for her material.
From the Mississippi Delta begins with three voices as the three performers — called, simply, Woman 1, Woman 2, and Woman 3 (Laura Nicholls, Margarette Robinson, and Baomi Butts-Bhanji, respectively) — sing their way to the stage. With the fervor of revivalists and each alternating as narrator, they tell us in story and song of Holland's place of origin, the land where a black teen-age boy from Chicago was tortured and murdered for having the effrontery to whistle at a white woman.
In a long expository setup, the narrator — Holland's stand-in, for some reason renamed Phelia — reveals that, among other things, she “didn't know that black people could write books. … I was always conscious of my inferiority and kept my place … until the civil rights movement came to town.” She then takes us into her past and that of her mother, Aint Baby, whose desire to “be somebody” leads her out of prostitution to become a midwife with mystical healing powers.
In straightforward narrative scenes that are occasionally accompanied by spirituals or the blues, we watch Phelia as she grows up in abject poverty, only to suffer rape at the hands of a white employer on her 11th birthday. The dramatic line swerves as Phelia/Holland's story alternates with Aint Baby's, or is intermittently shelved to make way for sketches of other Delta characters — most memorably, the elderly widow who ferociously protects the city-owned water meter at her curb.
As entertaining as the story scenes are, they are broadly drawn and often border on caricature. Miss Rosebud and her water meter, for instance, could easily be transplanted to Lake Wobegon. And neither director Thompson nor the otherwise able cast has found imaginative ways to physicalize various characters or situations.
Although written from a retrospective point of view — at no time does Holland mean us to believe she is not long and far removed from this setting — the language is the dialect of the Delta, with its colorful phraseology: “wimmins,” “mens,” and the like. It's startling, to say the least, when it drops away in favor of vocabulary more appropriate to a Ph.D.; it seems like a missed opportunity in terms of dramatic potential. We learn that her doctoral ceremony is attended by “my Maryland family” and “my Pennsylvania family,” which only makes us aware of the huge hole in the narrative. Clearly her progress was fraught with more complications than this simple story line allows.
I found myself troubled by other fundamental questions. If this is Holland's life, pure and unvarnished, why rename herself Phelia? Doing so suggests that the story contains elements of fiction. And if that is the case, one wonders what they are and why the truth needed to be altered.
Holland's stated desire to transform and inspire is both the strength of the piece and its weakness. In rushing across the plain of an entire life — actually, two lives — she forces herself to create sketches instead of fully developed scenes. There simply isn't time for characters to do what they do best, which is make choices. So instead of fully fleshed-out individuals who might display something unique — and truly transforming — we get Holland's shorthand versions of them, which tend to be simplistic and one-dimensional. It's as though she doesn't trust either them or the audience. The good people are saintly, the bad ones are pure evil, and everyone speaks in down-home folkisms. Maybe it's just that the educator cannot stop teaching.
There's a sort of irony about all this. Pioneers such as Holland — whose self-selected first name, Endesha, means “driver” in Swahili — have made such an indelible mark by now that plays like From the Mississippi Delta seem tame and overly familiar. Which, after all, is evidence of transformation.
The strength of the show is its cast: three marvelous actors who reach deep and come up with the passion and fire needed to put it across. Robinson and her no-holds-barred physicality stand out. It is she who takes on Phelia's role most often and most memorably, and it is she who exhibits the high level of sheer spunk Holland must also possess. Nicholls and Butts-Bhanji are the other essentials in the triad. Like Robinson, they take on and shed the various personalities with ease, grace, and fluidity. Each woman seems composed of the strongest and most flexible steel, and their singing voices — especially Butts-Bhanji's — send the evening soaring.
From the Mississippi Delta runs through Dec. 10 at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley; call 388-5208.