On stage: `From the Mississippi Delta'

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From the Mississippi Delta Play by Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland. Directed by Ed Smith. Three remarkable actresses animate and populate the teeming world of ``From the Mississippi Delta,'' the Negro Ensemble Company attraction at Theatre Four. Endesha Ida Mae Holland's 90-minute, intermissionless play is a mosaic of animated fragments depicting the experiences of typical black Americans of the Mississippi Delta region from the 1950s to the 1980s. The central figures of Dr. Holland's authentic folk tale typify black America's often painful progress toward equality in a turbulent era.

Notwithstanding its broader dimensions, the play unfolds in poignantly human terms. The central figure is Phelia (Brenda Denmark/Gwen Roberts-Frost), who survives assorted ordeals, including rape as a child by her white employer's son and a brief entry into prostitution. After playing a courageous part in the civil rights movement, she journeys north to enroll in the University of Minnesota, from which she eventually receives her PhD degree.

With Phelia's experiences as its central theme, the action divides into nine appropriately subtitled segments. ``Second Doctor Lady,'' for instance, introduces the legendary Ain't Baby (La Tanya Richardson, Phelia's mother, a midwife who ``birthed a million black babies'' and who later perished when her house was torched by white racists. The program explains that ``Ain't Baby'' doesn't mean ``Aunt Baby'' - it means ``She is not the baby of the family anymore.''

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``The Delta Queen'' recounts Phelia's determined but initially futile efforts to escape the Delta by becoming an exotic dancer with a traveling fair. This is ``From the Mississippi Delta'' at its raunchiest. On the other hand, ``The Water Pump'' seems almost like an inserted anecdote about Miss Rosebud, an elderly householder (Miss Richardson), who stands constant guard over her water meter. ``The Funeral'' returns to Ain't Baby, with the preacher (Miss Richardson again) delivering a sermon that splits the air even if it can't defy the rain. The solemnity of the occasion proves no match for the ludicrous mishaps that overtake it. Here as elsewhere, hilarity and heartache often seem to go hand in hand.

Such a summary scarcely more than suggests the scope and abundant variety of Holland's impressionistic memory play. Under Ed Smith's sympathetic direction, the assorted fragments come to life in a fascinating procession of vignettes and extended portraits. The superb three-woman cast plays a multitude of roles - blacks and whites, youngsters and grown-ups, males and females. Far from being burdened with its message, ``From the Mississippi Delta'' transcends polemics with its ebullient theatricality and vibrant immediacy.

The simple but effective production has been designed by Steven Perry (skeletal frame house with front porch), costumed by Judy Dearing, and lighted by William H. Grant III.

``From the Mississippi Delta'' originated at the New Federal Theatre and is having its second engagement at Theatre Four, where it continues through Oct. 23.

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