The M Ensemble's Mastery
We're getting to this one a few weeks late, and that's wrong. There isn't a single person in eyeshot of this newspaper who couldn't benefit from From the Mississippi Delta — a play so bighearted, so sassily smart, so emotionally tempestuous, so spiritually gratifying, and so LMAO funny that it's a damn crime to leave you but a single weekend to rearrange your plans, make your reservations, and get your ass to The M Ensemble to see it. But you will manage. Because you must.
Delta is an autobiographical work by deceased black playwright Enesha Ida Mae Holland, tracing her girlhood from the day of her 11th birthday through her graduation at the University of Minnesota. The latter is a happy event. On the former, she was raped by a white man.
The rapist's race is important because Holland, as a black girl growing up in the American South in the days before the Civil Rights Movement, had neither legal nor social recourse in the event's aftermath. This makes what follows so remarkable that it borders on the miraculous. After the rape — awful as it is and helpless as Ida was — Delta does not turn tragic. It barely milks any pathos out of the event at all: It acknowledges what happened with a smart dramatic construction I wouldn't want to ruin by explaining (though it does have horror in it, and a lot of it). But the play blithely moves on. "I became a woman," Ida notes shortly after the event, and her sunny, though now less innocent, disposition reasserts itself.
This ought to tell you a lot about both the character of the playwright and of her dramatic ambitions. Ida, if she was playing straight with us when penning Delta, was a woman who viewed her existence as a good thing, a good life, dotted with occasional moments of pain (many far worse than the rape — just wait till Act II) bracketed with moments of real, not rueful, levity: a wide-eyed acceptance of, delight in, and wonderment at the world around her. She'd rather laugh than cry with us, though she's obviously interested in doing both.
There is a marvelous sense of play and novelty in Holland's writing; you might call it experimental, but it's difficult to imagine a soul so free as Ida's actually going out of its way to be edgy. The characters in Delta — Woman One, Woman Two, and Woman Three — are fluid. Their roles shift with little fanfare. Woman One is sometimes Holland, at other times she's Woman Two. Woman Three is a crazy old spinster or a man who owns a circus or Ida's mother or a minister or a narrator or the voice of God. The actresses make these transitions seamlessly, abetted by a script that is equally smooth.
Delta flows from drama to song to storytelling, with Ida's storytelling voice passing from actress to actress. This all seems unforced thanks to a simple conversational conceit. One actress will begin speaking: "One day I was sitting ..." and the other actresses instantly become entirely new characters in an entirely new story. The music — small a cappella snippets of old blues standards or Civil Rights-era songs — comes unexpectedly in the middle of both stories and drama. They're sung discordantly and full of blue notes in the first act, when Ida's life is difficult, but in perfect harmony in the second, when it is obvious that Ida is on her way.
Delta's playful construction brings out the playfulness of its actresses. Theater people know how rare it is to get applause midscene, but Carey Hart does just that when she briefly assumes the role of Ida and stands at a window, watching her mother, a midwife, correct a breech birth. She speaks with the speed of an auctioneer and the giddiness of a bright kid for the first time in the presence of one of life's great adult mysteries. Brandii Edwards is dazzling: the facility and energy with which she switches roles is almost athletic, and her mugging as an old, gin-drinking alkie makes the audience not just laugh but cackle. It's a moment that almost requires its own intermission, just to let folks settle down.
Carolyn Johnson, tackling the show's older (if not necessarily more dignified) roles, is a gift to theater. She is relentlessly comic throughout the show, except for a single moment when, as the midwife, she seems suddenly possessed by some kind of animalistic spirit from the deepest Yoruban mysteries. Her eyes roll back in her head, her face contorts, muscles that you didn't know existed begin flexing and unflexing in her face, and for a moment you are horrified beyond all reason. This all goes on while the other two actresses, watching from the aforementioned window frame, are making the audience laugh. It is strange to be scared and delighted at the same time, though you get the feeling that Ida felt that way a lot.
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