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Remembering Endesha Ida Mae Holland
by Anthony Chase & Javier Bustillos
From The Mississippi Delta
by Anthony Chase
Seeing Dr. Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s autobiographical play, From the Mississippi Delta, was an emotional experience for Artvoice columnist Javier Bustillos and me. We knew Endesha well, and we played a significant role in the play’s history. In fact, I daresay there isn’t a play that has ever been written that I know better than From the Mississippi Delta.
The final sentence of Endesha’s autobiography reads, “To Anthony Chase and Javier Bustillos for their promotion, friendship, and encouragement from the beginning…a hearty thank you.”
Beneath the surface of that simple sentence lies a deep and powerful friendship, and some of the most unforgettable experiences of our lives. Endesha had a vivid personality, and while she would happily fire up a ruckus herself, she did not suffer fools gladly.
We served as Endesha’s agents and managers, picking up the pieces while her relationship with the Negro Ensemble Company in New York was falling apart, and shepherding her autobiographical play, From the Mississippi Delta, to Chicago, to Hartford, to Washington, to Los Angeles, to London, and finally back to New York. Along the way, we accompanied her back to the Mississippi Delta with the production crew for Jane Pauley’s television show, 20/20, and we saw the play named one of TIME magazines Best Plays of 1991.
From the Mississippi Delta was originally produced by Ujima Theater Company here in Buffalo with Lorna C. Hill directing. That production went on for an initial New York production and on to a national tour. The play tells the story of Endesha’s rise from poverty and prostitution in Greenwood, Mississippi to Civil Rights activism and a Ph.D. She was a marvelously perceptive writer and a consummate storyteller.
Below, Javier shares some memories of traveling with Endesha to London’s Young Vic. Ever protective of Endesha, we knew it was unwise to send her off to the UK alone. Javier had a remarkable ability to keep her laughing and focused. Reading his stories makes me smile. He brings one of the most wonderful people I have ever known back to life again.
Endesha in London
by Javier Bustillos
“Is that a DC-10?”
Those were the first words Endesha uttered after we booked the trip to London. There had just been a succession of major airline accidents all involving DC-10s, which piqued her suspicion.
Endesha didn’t like to fly in the first place, and I knew that with the slightest provocation she might refuse to get on the plane. And so, as innocently as possible, I answered, “I don’t think so…”
Of course it was a DC-10. That’s all Pan Am flew in those days.
So we were off to London. We boarded the plane, excited by the adventure of the London premiere of her play, From the Mississippi Delta. As a precaution I’d equipped myself with a bag of goodies to keep Endesha happy. During takeoff, just as the flight attendant announced the model of the aircraft, I pulled out surprise number one.
“Look what I’ve got Endesha!”
“Pork rinds!” she enthused, seeing a bag of that delectable heart-attack-in-a-bag that Southerners (and I personally) adore. Her joy was doubled when I produced a bottle of hot sauce to go with them. We shared them, and our journey began.
We enjoyed a beautiful flight.
Endesha always reminded me of a little girl. Her happiness was never less than total joy. Her sadness was never less than total despair. And her reactions could be immediate and inflexible.
As we cleared customs in the UK, we were greeted by a member of the Young Vic staff who was holding a sign that read “Mississippi Delta.”
The first thing she told us was that one of the actresses had fallen and broken her ankle.
“Not to worry! She can still do the show!”
I knew we’d better keep moving before Endesha found a way to board a plane back home. We got into a London taxi cab, which charmed Endesha immediately. She loved its boxy design, the fold-down seats, and especially seeing the driver positioned on the right. We made our way through London directly to the theater to see a rehearsal of the play.
We met the director, no-nonsense Annie Castledine. The cast was nervous, because the playwright had arrived. Endesha watched intently and carefully, actress in crutches.
We had seen this play countless times in numerous productions. This was like nothing we had ever seen before, and like nothing Endesha had ever envisioned. The three actresses created the locations of the play by maneuvering three folding wooden ladders. These ladders also served as a metaphor for the play’s central themes. Brilliant! On top of that, the three women with British accents we’d met before the run-through spoke with Mississippi Delta accents of astonishing accuracy.
Rehearsal over; Endesha in tears. The scene in which her mother dies in a fire always had that effect on her. She asked to go to the washroom. Recognizing my cue, I walked with her.
“So what do you think, homey?” she asked, cautiously.
“I loved it, Endesha!” I said, being careful not to be too effusive. She continued into the WC without committing herself to a reaction.
We walked back to the stage where the cast and director were waiting nervously.
Suspense adequately intense, Endesha made her announcement sternly and deliberately: “This is the best production of my play I have ever seen!”
Tears all around. Director and actresses all rushed up to hug and kiss her.
Endesha asked where the idea to use ladders came from.
“My dear,” said Annie Castledine. “It’s in your play!”
Indeed it was.
Having earned Endesha’s approval, Annie finally admitted that she also needed to “go to the loo.”
Not comprehending the British slang, “loo,” Endesha thought she was being asked about her years in Minnesota and corrected, “Not Duluth. Minneapolis.” Later we both laughed about that.
We had been trained in Buffalo by British-American playwright Kathleen Betsko Yale in the requisite English etiquette. With Annie off in “du loo,” Endesha decided to have a cigarette and knew enough to proffer a fag to everyone else like a native Londoner.
The next couple of days were filled with interviews for every newspaper and broadcast outlet in London. When we got to the BBC, they were running late. Waiting made Endesha anxious. As we sat in the green room, she decided the delay was an intentional insult, refused to wait any longer, and stormed out.
“Endesha!” I pleaded, running after her. “This is the BBC. Could you please not storm out?”
The letters “BBC” meant nothing to her. Having secured such a high-profile interview, I knew the Young Vic would be furious if we walked out. Doing publicity was in our contract. In desperation, I tried to calm Endesha down using the only device I could think of at the spur of the moment.
“Endesha,” I cooed. “You look so pretty this morning!”
My God, I never expected that to work on an adult! Endesha calmed down immediately, and coquettishly thanked me for the compliment. She marched back into the studio where, by now, they were ready, and proceeded to knock ’em dead on the BBC.
Ever aware of her public persona, and with a genius for making a memorable impression, in response to a direct question she used the word “vagina,” which was apparently verboten on the BBC. Two frantic engineers began to gesture wildly through the glass. The other guests on the Midday program laughed joyfully.
The carefully executed faux pas was a stroke of brilliance. Endesha was a hit.
One of my fondest memories involved my attempt to use an old-fashioned English public telephone. I didn’t understand that you were supposed to drop the coin after your call went through. The Young Vic shared a backstage area with the theater next door where the RSC was performing Othello with Ian McKellen as Iago. As I struggled with the phone, I was aware that someone behind me was waiting to make a call. Finally, out of sympathy, the anonymous stranger reached over my shoulder and helped. I looked up to say “Thank you,” and recognized Ian McKellen. I nearly fainted. I took no end of kidding from Endesha and the Mississippi Delta cast over that!
By this time, Endesha was already experiencing loss of equilibrium from ataxia nervosa, the genetically transmitted neurological disease that would eventually kill her. She walked with a cane and was prone to falling. We had negotiated in her contract that she was to be provided with cars to and from rehearsals and to any appearances or interviews requested by the theater. The Young Vic publicist was unaccustomed to making such arrangements. The previous playwright at the theater had been Arthur Miller himself. At one point, in exasperation, the publicist snapped, “You realize, don’t you, that your playwright has more privileges and special arrangements than Mr. Arthur Miller!”
Unfazed, I shot back, “Then perhaps Arthur Miller doesn’t have as good an agent as she does!”
Our experiences with Endesha had taught us to be very protective of our playwright and never to budge an inch without compelling justification. As part of this, we’d memorized her entire script, making us ready to recognize any unauthorized changes. From the first run through, it was clear that Annie and her cast were enormously respectful of Endesha and of her text. So much so that we felt that certain moments needed to be more spontaneous. Annie assigned me the task of explaining to the actors that they needed to loosen up.
At first I was hesitant. Why did the Latin guy have to do this? I quickly realized that after so much time with Endesha, I had picked up a lot of her voice and mannerisms. Thinking back, there is a lot of Endesha in me still today.
“These aren’t Anglo-African characters,” I said. “These are African-Americans from the South. You’re too proper. You need to have more fun! Let’s preach Ain’t Baby up to heaven!” They got it.
These black English women clearly relished the opportunity to play these roles. It was intriguing to hear them complain about the parts to which black women in Britain were typically relegated—lots of domestics from the West Indies. These women, fine actresses all, were all over Endesha, watching her, imitating her voice and gestures, trying to be like her in every way. At that time Endesha’s favorite word was a Zulu expression from South Africa, “Yebo!” an exclamation used to express emphatic agreement. She said it all the time, so the actresses wanted to incorporate that into the play. “No,” Endesha insisted. “That expression did not enter my life until years after the time of the play.”
Our stage manager was from Iceland and she loved the play, wondering whether it could be done in her home country with white women, because there were no black women there.
“Well, we’ll think about it,” said Endesha diplomatically. That never happened.
The night the play opened was unforgettable and wonderful in every detail. The cultural attaché from the American Embassy was there. Having thought of everything, we’d sent him an invitation before leaving Buffalo, with all the information about the play.
As the play came to a close, as always, Endesha was in tears. Still crying, she took my arm and we began to make our way to the dressing rooms. Abruptly, Endesha stopped crying and whispered in my ear with distinct earnestness, “Get the cultural attaché, bring him backstage, and don’t forget the camera, homey!” I looked back at her startled. She chuckled and said, “I wasn’t no whore for nothing, homey!” and then resumed crying.
Endesha always maintained that Annie Castledine’s staging of the play with a cast of Afro-British women was the best she had seen. When Susan Quint Gallin approached her to produce the play at Circle in the Square off-Broadway for an open-ended commercial run, we were disappointed that the New York producer would not entertain importing Annie. Instead, the Chicago production, with a fine cast of Chicago actresses, made its way to New York with Oprah Winfrey as a co-producer. It ran for 218 performances.
Seeing From the Mississippi Delta at Road Less Traveled filled me with the bitter sweetness of nostalgia. Endesha died in 2006. Her obituary in the New York Times praised “the hypnotic pull of Professor Holland’s story,” and recounted its details. I miss Endesha very much, and know that I will never meet anyone like her again.
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