The journey begins in Greenwood, Mississippi—the Delta. "In my Delta town, some black girls aspired to become the woman—the mistress of some wealthy white man. But the darker ones—like me—could make it by going to the cottonfields, working from sun to sun, for just about three dollars a day," laments Phelia (Holland's alter-ego). It is those and other dreadful experiences that inspire her to dream far beyond the funny-paper walls in her drafty shotgun house in Dixie Lane Alley. Phelia's mother, Aint Baby, is a powerful influence. A midwife who delivers babies of poor black and white women, she also rents out rooms to prostitutes, as a way "t' make a livin' for me an' my chulluns." On her 11th birthday, Phelia's childhood is brutally stolen from her by a white man. Not even Aint Baby can protect her from white people, nor remove the sickening taste of shame. Phelia plots a series of escapes. After the rape, she attempts to join a minstrel show as an exotic dancer, astounding the male audience with her "special" skill, but the plan is quickly thwarted. At the age of 12, Phelia is a prostitute and a thief. At 14 she has quit school and spent time in jail, and by 16, she is an unwed mother. Then the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) comes to town, and Phelia is swept into the momentum of the civil rights movement. Tragically, Aint Baby is killed when her house is firebombed, and a heartbroken, but determined Phelia goes off to meet her destiny in the North. There she finds herself lured into the neon world of pimps, junkies and whores. Amazingly, she is encouraged and supported by a community of civil rights workers, friends and her "street family" to attend college. The journey ends, 20 years later, as Phelia "buck-dances" across the stage at the University of Minnesota to accept her Ph.D. Inspired by Alice Walker's poem "Revolutionary Petunias," the play closes with an emotional tribute to unsung black "sheroes"—extraordinary, ordinary women who are the backbone of the African-American community.
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