'Delta' is rich with talent, poetry Drama: Outstanding Rep Stage Company trio brings playwright's autobio- graphical tale to life.

June 15, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Although the Mississippi Delta is best known for the blues, the area also produced another phenomenon -- Endesha Ida Mae Holland.

A former streetwalker who later walked the streets in civil rights protests, Holland is now a professor and playwright. Her autobiographical drama, "From the Mississippi Delta," is receiving a moving, highly theatrical production at the Rep Stage Company, in cooperation with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

Three talented actresses -- Rachel D. Spaght, Dormetria Robinson and Sadiqa Pettaway -- each portray not only Holland, but also the folks she comes across from her rural childhood through the granting of her doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

These wide-ranging characters take the actresses across barriers of race, gender, class and age -- a tactic that, in itself, serves as a theatrical metaphor for the strides made by this African-American playwright, who was raised in a shotgun shack in Greenwood, Miss.

Radiating determination and warmth, Pettaway shines in her primary role as Holland's mother, Aint Baby, the local midwife, whose skill earned her the sobriquet of Second Doctor Lady. In the second act, Pettaway demonstrates her versatility, portraying the same character once removed when Bro Pastor preaches at Aint Baby's funeral and imitates the way the midwife "toted dat heavy cross" in the service of the Lord.

The most humorous portrayal is Spaght's sashaying depiction of young Holland as an exotic dancer billed as the Delta Queen (who, we are told, was capable of performing a lewd feat with a cigarette).

Robinson, who plays a number of the male roles, shows off her quick-change skills when she portrays one of Aint Baby's patients in heavy labor -- as well as the patient's frightened husband.

Though much of Holland's story is heartwarming, it also contains lots of heartbreak. Aint Baby's death is caused by a house fire, presumably set by white racists reacting to Holland's civil rights activism. And the path that leads to Holland's streetwalking begins at age 11, when she is raped by the rich, white grandfather of a child she is baby-sitting.

But Holland's strong spirit surmounts these tragedies, encouraged by Aint Baby, who appears -- again portrayed by Pettaway -- even after her death, to remind Holland to "keep ya footes turned toward de toppa de ladder."

Occasionally the play drifts away from Holland's life, as in a long, albeit amusing, scene about Rosebud Dupree (Pettaway), an old coot obsessed with keeping pedestrians from stepping on her water meter.

And though Darryl V. Jones' direction is fairly taut, the playwright's device of having more than one actress portray the same character -- sometimes simultaneously, at other times sequentially -- can be a bit confusing.

This problem is initially exacerbated by the main characters' names. Though Holland and her mother are both named "Ida Mae," the playwright is inexplicably called "Phelia" (her mother, of course, is Aint Baby).

But if you can sit back and let these difficulties slide, you'll find the piece has a nice poetic flow, punctuated with spirituals and hymns. And you'll come away feeling that you not only know Endesha Ida Mae Holland, you've shared her journey, all the way from the Mississippi Delta to Minnesota to Columbia's Rep Stage Company.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

'Mississippi Delta'

Where: The Rep Stage Company, Theatre Outback, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and June 23; matinees at 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 23 Tickets: $10 and $13

$ Call: (410) 964-4900

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