Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

From the Mississippi Delta
Lifeline Theatre / Pegasus Theatre Chicago
Review by Christine Malcom

Also see Karen's review of London Road

Jenise Sheppard, Arielle Leverett, and LaKecia Harris
Photo by Suzanne Plunkett
To close its 40th anniversary season, Lifeline Theatre is co-presenting Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland's autobiographical play From the Mississippi Delta in conjunction with Pegasus Theatre Chicago. Directed by ILesa Duncan, the production features three stunningly collaborative performances by LaKecia Harris, Arielle Leverett and Jenise Sheppard, making for a riveting evening of storytelling, music and movement.

The strength of the play itself and the performers is well supported by the production design. Angela Weber Miller's scenic design transforms Lifeline's black box into Aint Baby's shotgun house in Greenwood, Mississippi, the houses of the families whose children she brings into the world, and the spaces where her daughter Phelia struggles to find her place in a violent, changing world.

Weber Miller has created a backstage with a wide-slatted wall as well as two entrances into the domestic spaces up- and downstage left, both of which create the impression of a structure that is regularly and roundly shaken, but still standing. Upstage right is a short staircase that stands in for dangerous, provocative spaces ranging from the site of Phelia's rape–and the stage where, as a young girl seeking escape from the delta, she performs her jaw-dropping exotic dance–to the porch where Miss Rosebud stockpiles bricks for chucking at anyone who would dare to step on her water meter. Otherwise, the set comprises a trunk, a small barrel, and a narrow bed that stows away under the stairs. Each of these spaces houses the few props and costume pieces the three actors employ to shift from one character to another.

The design, in conjunction with Levi J. Wilkins' lighting and projection design, is not simply practical and well suited to the show's needs. It's also a visual representation of the balancing act Holland's play is in itself. The stark violence of many (though by no means all) of the stories conveyed in the 110-minute run is shouldered by the actors as a body. When a moment becomes too much, the narration shifts from one woman to the next; when the characters' experiences descend into bleakness, there is some kind of light, whether it is conveyed through song, humor, or a simple gesture. In providing the physical space for the story to weave these moments together, the set, lighting and projections translate the grace of the text into concrete form.

Gregory Graham's costume design also plays a vital part in this. The three actors are physically different, not just in their bodies but in the very way they carry themselves. Graham keeps up the links between them with colors that are in turn anchored to the overarching story's different eras. The three Women are in shades of dark red early on, vibrant shades of melon at the play's midpoint, and riffs on black and white stripes at the end. They don hats and shawls and elegant dressing gowns as needed to transform into the play's other characters, and at every turn, the visual message conveyed is not one of Aint Baby and Phelia following a simplistic linear trajectory, but rather that these women are deep, complex characters who are many things at once.

Ricky Harris (music director) and Deon Custard (sound designer) should not be overlooked for their contributions to what makes the show outstanding. Custard immerses the audience in the world of the play with the barking of dogs and the crackle of flames and ambient sound that wends its way around the intimate room. Harris's arrangements of spirituals, hymns, and songs of the Civil Rights Movement for the voices of the three Women lean into the darkness of the lyrics, unearthing not just their rage and grief, but also the power of their fierce joy. Kudos also to dialect coach Shadana Patterson for supporting the three talented actors in navigating the play's language and bringing the music of its speech to life.

It seems almost inappropriate to discuss the three actors separately, given the extent to which their performance is a masterful collaboration. Arielle Leverett (Woman 3) primarily embodies Aint Baby, Phelia's mother and Greenwood's respected midwife, and the Second Doctor Lady, as well as the voice of the Jim Crow generation who had fought and scratched for a kind of precarious safety in that time and place. Of the three, Leverett's performance is the stillest and most restrained, yet what she accomplishes with her voice and facial expressions is remarkable, and the hypnotic power of her movement in the scene where she falls into something like a trance as she handles a particularly difficult breach delivery pays off the rest of her choices beautifully.

As Woman 2, Jenise Sheppard primarily takes on the task of portraying Phelia as a child, bursting with innocent joy, but also the Phelia who is brutalized, but not shattered by her assault. Sheppard is also the Phelia who pushes back against Aint Baby's weary, wary mindset, the Phelia who shrewdly calculates her "rates" for black men and white men, and the Phelia who proudly wears her hair natural and boldly throws her lot in with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There is nothing simple in the play, and Sheppard's ability to fully inhabit Phelia's complexities and the personalities of the town's boys and men is key to what elevates the show well beyond any kind of gratuitous "trauma porn" or offensively simplistic just so stories about adversity building character.

LaKecia Harris (Woman 1) is every bit as good as her counterparts. She is the Phelia who breaks the fourth wall, the Phelia who plays the character she needs to play at every given moment, whether that is the Delta Queen, determined to outdo the exotic dancer Miss Candy Quick, or the budding writer armed with a notepad and a self-awarded master's degree, searching out real life in the frozen north. Harris' gift is for dry wit and perfect timing, but she also infuses the characters she plays with a seriousness and sense of self-worth that demands the same from the audience.

From the Mississippi Delta runs through June 18, 2023, at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call the Lifeline Theatre Box Office at 773-761-4477.