There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Admit it: Up-from-poverty tales can be snoozers. Sure, we want people to rise above oppression and prejudice and the lack of indoor plumbing and become inspirationsas long as we don’t have to squirm through an hour and a half of “I am somebody!” clichés to be inspired. A struggle-and-triumph tale works only when it’s not only credible, but surprising. And From the Mississippi Delta, a Pulitzer Prize-nominated dramatic memoir by Endesha Ida Mae Holland, has moments that are like opening a birthday gift. Three uniformly fine actresses (Thembi Duncan, Lynn Chavis, and Jewell Robinson) embody characters from Holland’s life, from her birthto Ain’t Baby, who takes in white women’s ironing and becomes a celebrated midwifethrough her childhood, her youthful involvement with the civil-rights movement, and her eventual doctoral degree. The story moves more or less chronologically, propelled by both narration and acted vignettes, but it starts on a somber notewith a recounting of the death of Emmett Till, fixing in viewers’ minds the Mississippi we’re in. And soon after, Phelia, Holland’s child self, is raped by a white man, in a scene that turns startlingly from comedy to terror. Such horrors are always at least in the background, but much of the play is about the small thrills of ordinary life in a mid-20th-century black shantytown. Holland has an ear for detail, often to hilarious effect, as when we hear of Ain’t Baby alternately positioning an about-to-be-born baby and swigging from an RC Cola. And in the African Continuum Theatre Company’s energetic, minimalist production, director Scot Reese plays up the pride, making the actresses swagger a bit even as they’re careful not to get “biggety.” Timothy J. Jones offers a stark, evocative set of three small front porches, and Greta Dowling’s props are merely three pieces of cloth, which the actresses wield in visually striking ways. The violent moments are handled tastefully, never overdonesuggesting the inner balance that Holland must have maintained to overcome rape, murder, prostitution, and the pervasive evils of poverty and racism. This kind of feel-good entertainment depends on flow, and ACTCo’s got enough to spare: As the current moves on, tossing tones and times and actors in its wake, we’re borne along as well. Pamela Murray Winters