Freedom’s Long Song: From prostitute to PhD, one woman beats the odds in eta’s latest play

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round…marching on to freedom land,” sing the three women on stage. It is a powerful refrain that punctuates the story of personal triumph told in “From the Mississippi Delta,” and the voices grow in strength as members of the audience unexpectedly join in on this classic spiritual. The story of one woman’s life hits a high note as the theater fills with a chorus of people on their own way to deliverance.

“From the Mississippi Delta,” playing now at eta Creative Arts Foundation, chronicles Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s life, from her painful childhood in the segregated South to her graduation from a doctoral program in the Midwest. Her journey is more of an evolution than a departure, for although she leaves Mississippi for Minnesota, she carries her memories of home and heartbreak with her.

Holland’s recollection of her harrowing past is showcased on stage in a series of scenes with three narrators (listed simply as Woman 1, Woman 2, and Woman 3), who also take on several overlapping roles. The three women weave together Holland’s memoir, which focuses on two major female characters: Ain’t Baby, a figure based on Holland’s mother, and Phelia, a portrait of Holland herself.

Phelia grows up in a time and place where racism runs rampant and opportunities are scarce for a young black girl. Her mother, Ain’t Baby, makes ends meet by doing the ironing for wealthy white families and taking the occasional unsavory boarder into their shotgun house. Ain’t Baby’s story is one of success in spite of adversity as well, since she becomes a distinguished midwife, referred to as the “second doctor lady” by even the established physicians in town. Phelia’s own life, however, takes a devastating turn when a wealthy white man rapes her at the age of 11. Instead of working from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields, she decides to make a living selling her body to the men around town, and bears the contemptuous glances of disapproving neighbors. She nearly runs away with a seedy traveling carnival, but after her raunchy burlesque act is put to an end, the sideshow leaves without her. Phelia finds purpose and redemption when she gets involved with the civil rights movement, earns her PhD, and becomes an acclaimed playwright.

The play’s theme of the transcendence of the female spirit is conveyed with the right balance of tragedy, outrage, humor, and hope, thanks to compelling performances by the three actors, Jihan Murray-Smith, Kierra Bunch, and Valerie Robinson. The three-narrator, multi-character structure of the script exhibits the range and dynamism of the actors, but is also the play’s most problematic feature.

At times confusing and incoherent, “From the Mississippi Delta” jumps from scene to scene as quickly as the actors change outfits and personas. Rather than stitching together her past into an intricate yet cogent whole, Holland serves up a disjointed collection of fragmented memories, traditional hymns, and inspirational monologues, and she expects the audience to comprehend and identify with her experience. It is a task as confounding as trying to reconstruct a person’s life story from the random artifacts they have left behind, and the narrative’s lack of continuity and its tendency toward the panegyric can often be frustrating.

Yet despite the script’s flaws, Holland’s march to freedom strikes an inspiring chord, and by the end of the second act, when the audience again broke into song, even I started humming along.

eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave. Through January 11. Thursday-Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 3 and 7pm. (773)752-3955. $30, 2-for-1 tickets on Thursday and Sunday at 7pm.