Jubilee Theatre returns to serious fare with 'From the Mississippi Delta'

Endesha Ida Mae Holland took a long, difficult route to being a playwright.

Before she could write From the Mississippi Delta, a tale of an abused child who grows up to be a prostitute before ultimately turning her life around, she had to live it.

"She was remarkable," says Phyllis Cicero, who is directing the production of Holland's script, which opens Friday at Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre. "What she found was self-esteem, and that made all the difference. It is a triumphant story."

The play is based on Holland's memoir of the same title, which chronicles her rise from the dirt-poor world of turning tricks in a north Mississippi backwater to ultimately earning a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. (This play grew out of a playwriting class that she took there.)

Bridging those extremes were several years of participation in the tumultuous civil-rights movement of the 1960s. While working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the movement, Holland was arrested more than a dozen times.

A show like this marks a bit of a departure from what we have been seeing on local stages of late. In response to an uncertain economy, many theaters have been sticking to lighter, safer fare.

"When life is more dramatic, people don't go to dramas. Comedies and musicals have been dominant lately because they sell. It has been harder to get this kind of show mounted in recent years," says Cicero, an actress-director whose credits include a five-year stint as Stella the Storyteller on Barney. "Hopefully, this will be one of the shows that brings that back and proves you can still do theater that is provocative and thought-provoking.

Cicero says the piece is anything but grim.

"We have some very poignant moments but, overall, it is not a depressing show," she says. "It is an uplifting show and a very funny show. The characters are a hoot."

There are a lot of them.

"There are a total of about 20 characters," says Cicero, adding that all of them are brought to life by a cast of only three actresses. "Some of [the characters] get a full portrait and others just get an honorable mention. But the piece is so well written that the cast and I felt we all knew these people."

In terms of preparing her cast, Cicero says the actresses had to bring a lot of their own personal experience to the roles.

"As a director, I encourage them and see what they have," says Cicero, who had everyone reading the memoir on which Holland based her stage version. "I have to find what the actress brings to it, otherwise, it doesn't feel honest. It feels like someone has painted it on. And I think an audience recognizes that immediately."

Cicero also feels that From the Mississippi Delta tells a story that is timeless and universal.

"It's not a February story," says Cicero, alluding to Black History Month. "It's an everyday story."