WASHINGTON — Washington--There is plenty of down-home blues infusing Endesha Ida Mae Holland's drama "From the Mississippi Delta" at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, and like the blues her play is both sad and humorously life-affirming.
This episodic chronicle of the civil rights movement in a small Mississippi town is full of autobiographical fervor drawn from Ms. Holland's own youth. So there is much evocative detail that imaginatively takes us into the "shotgun" houses that are no more than shacks and the juke joints where the poor go to have fun.
What makes this Southern agrarian detail somewhat unusual in playwriting terms is that three actresses embody all of the small town characters regardless of race, sex or age. Sometimes Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Sybil Walker and Jacqueline Williams portray separate characters and sometimes aspects of the same character. There are also times when two will serve as narrators and the third will act out what they're describing.
As for the characters they conjure up with such conviction, why, they're as idiosyncratic as the "crazy" quilt hanging in one scene. The gallery includes Aunt Baby, a woman whose midwife status allows her to move through most segments of this segregated society; Miss Rosebud Dupree, a widow who sits rocking on her front porch, waiting to toss bricks at anyone who dares step on the city water meter on her lawn; and several love-starved country boys who are wide-eyed watching fairground exotic dancers.
But this production -- which comes to Arena from the Northlight Theater in Evanston, Ill. -- soon makes clear that there is one character for whom we should care the most, Phelia, and that she functions as an authorial surrogate. Herein lies the play's power and also its major problem.
To be sure, Ms. Holland comes to this play by an unusual route. She did not consciously set out on a playwriting career. Back in 1985, when she was within a few credits of graduating from the University of Minnesota, she decided to take an acting class. However, she put down the wrong code number for the course and as a result found herself enrolled in a playwriting class. Her first play, "Second Doctor Lady," which drew on the experiences of her mother, won the Lorraine Hansberry award. More plays have followed for the 46-year-old playwright, who is an associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
As for the gestation of this particular play, "From the Mississippi Delta" was initially adapted as a one-woman dramatic reading based on autobiographical short stories. Though transformed into a play, the blues numbers which serve as musical bridges between the various narrative incidents aren't always enough to pull them together.
That Phelia goes from being a poor girl to a prostitute and then becomes a civil rights advocate who graduates from a Minnesota university is a plausible if uncommon evolution and results in some powerful scenes, but the play's episodic structure makes her development seem too abrupt and not fully dramatized.
This reservation about the play's structure notwithstanding, one still must acknowledge that Ms. Holland's own life story exemplifies just how quickly a person can bolt into a new phase of existence. And extrapolating from her personal case, "From the Mississippi Delta" eschews deliberate plot development in order to show how African-Americans such as Ms. Holland have been able to leap from the segregated past to a more promising present.
As the play-opening recording of Nina Simone's exquisitely angry song about race relations, "Mississippi Goddamn," reminds us: "You keep on saying 'Go slow,' but that's just the trouble."
'From the Mississippi Delta' Where: Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, Sixth Street and Maine Avenue S.W., Washington.
When: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday matinees at 2:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Through Jan. 20.
Tickets: $16-$28, with discounts available.
Call: (202) 488-3300.