Sweet but Unsatisfying

By Brooks Appelbaum

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years is being given a handsome, warm, but ultimately unsatisfying revival at Long Wharf Theater through March 13 in co-production with Hartford Stage. Playwright Emily Mann adapted the script from the oral history, or memoir, of the same name, written by Sarah L. “Sadie” Delaney and Dr. Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany when the African-American sisters were 104 and 102 years old, respectively. Mann reported that she discovered the necessary dramatic tension for a play when she met the two very different women and found them to be “two sides of the same coin.” In this version, though, the effect is unfortunately more like a split screen.

Olivia Cole sensitively and believably embodies Sadie. We are completely convinced that she is 104, and that she is the gentle soul she describes herself to be. At the same time, Cole radiates the intelligence, cleverness, and wit that her set-piece stories display. Sadie obtained a Masters Degree in Education from Columbia and taught in the New York public schools until her retirement, at age 71. Gentle she may have been, but her chosen career bespeaks enormous determination and strength.

Director Jade King Carroll has miscast the much younger Brenda Pressley as Bessie, and what we see is a stereotype: a sassy, contentious, yet lovable middle-aged (rather than elderly) woman. This is especially unfortunate because Bessie’s accomplishments were as unusual and remarkable as her sister’s. Graduating from Columbia’s Dental School, she ran her own dental practice until, at the young age of 59, she had to close it to care for their elderly mother.

Pressley has energy and comic timing, along with presence and a ringing voice that we hear when the sisters sing one of their father’s favorite hymns to celebrate his birthday. However, the voice and the presence remind us too much that we are watching an actor in a play, while the magic of Having Our Say depends upon our belief that Sadie and Bessie themselves are before us.

The play’s structure certainly works towards this belief. The sisters speak directly to the audience, telling us that they are so delighted we’ve come to visit because day after day they plead, “Lord, send us someone new!” This is decidedly not because they are tired of one another; their loving affection is palpable. Rather, it’s because “Everyone we know is dead or they’re boring us to death.” As they invite us into their home and into their memories, we learn, through stories illustrated by Alexis Distler’s projections above the set, about each member of their large family and about the many stages of African-American history that touched -- sometimes with astonishing closeness -- these women’s lives.

They intersected with such luminaries as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson (among others), and they contended, though at a distance, with what they call “those rebby boys,” who found fun in lynching, and whose unspeakable cruelties create some of the evening’s most dramatic narratives. More directly, Jim Crow laws affected their youth; and they experienced the crushing disappointment of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, which they felt marked the failure of the Civil Rights Movement.

However, the play is mainly a celebration of life, and specifically of these remarkable women. Its success depends upon our feeling both at home with them and compelled by their stories. Director Jade King Carroll and her designers have done their best work with the first challenge. Alexis Distler’s set brings us inside the Delaney’s sumptuous house; Nicole Pearce has lit the play with sensitivity; and Karen Perry’s costumes express each woman’s distinctive personality.

Whether you will enjoy this two-hour visit depends upon whether you enjoy storytelling as theater and how much pleasure you take in acting. Watching the wonderful Olivia Cole is almost worth the price of a ticket.

Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First Hundred Years runs through March 13. Tickets are available by calling the Long Wharf Theatre Box Office (203-787-4282) or visiting the website at www.longwharf.org. The Long Wharf Theatre is located at 222 Sargent Drive in New Haven.

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