Theatre Project's Having Our Say Finds the Delany Sisters
The play is set in 1992 in the Mount Vernon home where the sisters live together. Neither ever married (for which they humorously credit their longevity), and they lived together all their adult lives (first in Harlem, then the Bronx, and finally in Mount Vernon, which was not welcoming to blacks when they moved there). At Theatre Project, the audience stands in for Hearth who is there to conduct interviews for her book. At this time, Sadie is 103 years old and Bessie is 101. Their stories of their life are vividly amplified by personal family photographs and historical photographs of milestones (and millstones) of 20th century black American history on the rear wall at center stage.
Born into slavery in 1858, their education-loving father was the vice principal of St. Augustine's School in North Carolina where the sisters were raised (they were the second and third of ten siblings). Their mother, who was a teacher, was the daughter of a free black woman and a white farmer. Their father was the first black Episcopal Bishop in the United States. They came to New York (Sadie in 1916 and Bessie in 1918) in order to escape from the onus of Jim Crow laws in the South. For many years, the sisters lived in Harlem where they witnessed the Harlem Renaissance as an active part of a distinguished community of artists, writers, musicians, educators and political leaders.
Sadie, who would became a school teacher, attended Pratt Institute and Columbia University, earning bachelor and masters' degrees in education from the latter. Sadie was the first black person permitted (she pointedly tells us) to teach Domestic Science in a New York City public high school. Bessie, who would go on to become a Harlem dentist, graduated from Columbia University's Dental School and was the second black woman to become a licensed dentist in New York State.
There is a plethora of personal and social history which is conveyed in Having Our Say. No little part of it is concerned with sad and painfully dreadful events (i.e., lynchings, hateful prejudice and denial of rights). However, while Bessie displays just a wee bit of ill temper ("Sadie is sugar, and I'm the spice"), their warmth, omnipresent sense of humor and hard won grace and equanimity make our visit with them a heartwarming delight. Emily Mann includes in her script their skepticism as to the confirmation hearing testimony of Clarence Thomas in regard to Anita Hill in lieu of comments of theirs on events which have had more lasting historic significance. Most significantly, Mann has included the Delany sisters' fervid emphasis on their contention that their lives and accomplishments contradict the false stereotypes which fuel prejudice against black Americans. Effort, education and self reliance are the watchwords of Sadie and Bessie Delany. They embrace the freedom and opportunity that America offers, and they will not allow anyone to deny it to them.
Mann has cleverly further given distinctiveness to the sisters by having them occupied with preparing their father's favorite dishes for their annual commemoration and celebration of his birthday. Daaimah Talley (Sadie) and Gail Lou (Bessie), under the skillful direction of Mark Spina, complete the portrait with the warmth, rich detail and joy of living in their performances. Daaimah Talley is particularly brilliant in playing "old", 103 years old, and she does so without dimming Sadie's strong life force. Gail Lou brings an elegant crispness to Bessie which contrasts nicely with Talley's folksier Sadie.
Having Our Say, although not especially lengthy, is written and presented in three acts. Each is set in a different room of the housethe sitting room, the kitchen and the dining room, respectively. The clever set design creates a sense of unity among the rooms.
Sadie and Bessie Delany survived to see themselves portrayed on Broadway. Although they have since passed on, thanks to Amy Hill Hearth, Emily Mann and current and future theatre artists like Mark Spina, Daaimah Talley and Gail Lou, it is our good fortune that the Delany sisters will be Having Their Say for a long time to come.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years continues performances (Evenings: Thursday (4/18), Friday and Saturday (4/13) - 8 PM/ Matinees: Saturday (4/20) and Sunday -2 PM) through April 21, 2013, at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Durand Road, Maplewood, NJ 07040; online: www.thetheaterproject.org ; box office: 973-763-4029.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years by Emily Mann; Directed by Mark Spina