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Playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland dies

USC professor's ‘From the Mississippi Delta’ examined civil rights movement
/ Source: The Associated Press

Playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland, whose autobiographical play "From the Mississippi Delta" told how the civil rights movement inspired a girl born in poverty to turn her life around, has died. She was 61.

Holland, who had battled ataxia, a degenerative neurological disease, for 15 years, died Jan. 25 at a nursing home in the Los Angeles area. The former Greenwood resident was a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California's theater school. She also taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Beginning as a one-woman show, the 1988 play told the stories of Holland's life, including a period spent in a small shack in the 1940s, a rape at age 11, her life as a prostitute and the death of her mother in a fire rumored to have been set by the Ku Klux Klan. She changed her life and began pursuing a college education after working in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

The play was performed around the country and at the Young Vic in London in 1989.

When "From the Mississippi Delta" was presented in New York in 1991, Associated Press Drama Critic Michael Kuchwara called it "exhilarating, taking on the joyous spirit of a religious revival meeting before it reaches its high-spirited finale."

"There is real sense of place in Holland's stories. The delta, with its ‘calm, balmy days,' according to the playwright, becomes a character itself," he wrote.

As in the play, Holland moved north to Minnesota to study. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, where she eventually earned a Ph.D. in American studies. She credited a writing course there with sparking her interest in writing plays.

Holland's memoir, published in 1997, also was called "From the Mississippi Delta."

Among her other plays was one about her mother, "The Second Doctor Lady," which won a Lorraine Hansberry Award in 1981. The award honors the best student-written plays about the black experience.

Funeral arrangements were pending in Greenwood.

"I don't think her heart ever really left Greenwood," said her friend and manager Habibi Minnie Wilson. "That was home."

Holland is survived by her son, Cedric Holland; her sister, Jean Beasley, and granddaughter, all of Buffalo, N.Y.; and a brother, Charlie "Bud" Nellums, of Greenwood.