There are certain facts about life in the Deep South at the dawn of the civil rights movement that remain difficult for contemporary audiences to grasp.
In her sad, soul-stirring and often deeply funny autobiographical play "From the Mississippi Delta," the late Buffalo playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland threw many of them into stark relief.
For instance, as one character recalls, black men in Mississippi instinctively averted their eyes from white women's faces out of fear that many could not tell one white woman from another. Holland's own mother, known as Aunt Baby, thought nothing of sleeping with her feet inside cardboard boxes to keep the roaches off. Waking up to a cross burning on your front lawn, jarring though it must have been, was a matter of course.
Road Less Traveled Productions is presenting "From the Mississippi Delta" for the first time on a local stage since 1989, when the Negro Ensemble Company launched its national tour of the play in Buffalo State College's Rockwell Hall. Later, the play that began its life on the Ujima Theatre stage in 1986 would complete a successful six-month run off-Broadway and spread around the world.
Local audiences can be glad the play has finally made its way home. This frequently entrancing production, co-directed by Verneice Turner and Tim Kennedy, takes audiences on a journey from the Mississippi of Holland's youth into the civil rights movement and finally to the relative comfort of the North.
In striking, lyrical language, Turner, June L. Saunders Duell (both of whom appeared in the original and off-Broadway productions) and Danica Riddick take turns recounting the alternately harrowing and hilarious stories of Holland's life. Despite a bit of opening night shakiness, these three performers are extraordinary.
The show begins with some expert scene-setting in which Holland compares the outset of the civil rights movement to a growing conflagration: "The South kept throwing everything on it that would burn, and the North kept sending fire trucks with no water in them."
We soon meet Holland's mother, a gifted midwife known as Aunt Baby or the "second doctor lady," who Duell imbues with irresistible charm. We meet an 11-year-old Ida Mae Holland (she added "Endesha," Swahili for "guide," later on), whose innocence disappears on her birthday when she is raped by her white employer.
That scene, certainly the most jarring in the play, opens with Turner reading Holland's narration about the beauty and serenity of the day: "How is she to know the calm is counterfeit?" Turner asks.
She doesn't, and that is one of the millions of tragedies large and small that Holland funneled into this piece. But for the rest of her life, in Mississippi juke joints and northern universities alike, she carries with her that hard-learned lesson about how the world really works.
"Only powerful groups write history," Holland told The News in a 1989 interview. "They've been in the driver's seat for a long time and he who names you determines what you think about yourself."
By naming herself and telling her story, Holland became powerful enough to rewrite history. We're lucky she left her story behind, and lucky that it's been given such a fine revival.
"From the Mississippi Delta"
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Through Oct. 7 in Road Less Traveled Theatre, 639 Main St. Tickets are $15-$30. Call 629-3069 or visit www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.