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Delta's Queen

A play spotlights one powerful performance.

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The African American Repertory Theatre's “From the Mississippi Delta” begins with the powerful, unaccompanied voice of actress Rochelle Turnage lifted up in a song of hope. And as long as the production focuses on Turnage and her compelling portrayal of Aint Baby, it remains riveting and strong.

Her character is an extraordinary woman who worked her way up from a cotton field worker making 35 cents a day to a respected midwife. Stories taken from her life — from her mystical delivery of a breach baby to her heartbreaking death during the civil rights movement — are rendered with flair and intensity under Toney Q. Cobb's able direction, restaging a 2008 production directed by Derome Scott Smith.

Turnage is joined by Sharalyn Bailey and Shalandis Wheeler Smith and together the three actresses render more than two dozen characters, sometimes the same one at the same time. Smith does some great work as Aint Baby's daughter, Phelia, capturing a joyful innocence that's abruptly interrupted when she's raped at 11 years old. The capable Bailey delivers a number of terrific comic moments as an elder Phelia, particularly as she discovers new talents as an exotic dancer.

The script by Endesha Ida Mae Holland is rich with vivid details of hardscrabble life in impoverished Mississippi, and the actresses generally render the sometimes overwritten lines well. The production overcomes some of the challenges of its Pine Camp venue with a simple set delineated by series of scrims, straightforward lighting and a surprisingly crisp sound design.

Only later in the second act, when the narrative follows Phelia's escape from the Delta to a Minnesota college, does the play become too self-conscious and occasionally awkward. While these later scenes lack the texture and specific context of the first act's highlights, throughout it all, Turnage stands tall in a commanding performance. S

The African American Repertory Theatre's “From the Mississippi Delta” appears at Pine Camp Arts Center, 4901 Old Brook Road, through Sunday, June 14. Tickets are $20-$25. Call 355-2187 for details.

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