Sisters Have Their Say Looking Back Over a Century
By Amy J. Barry
Miss Sadie Delany is 103 years old. Her younger sister Dr. Bessie Delany is 101. They have lived together almost all of their lives and they are, as Sadie says, “in some ways, like one person.”
And the marvelous acting by Olivia Cole as Sadie and Brenda Pressley as Bessie, in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, under the skillful direction of Jade King Carroll, makes the audience feel that these two elderly ladies are indeed two sides of the same coin, despite their striking contrasts.
Sadie is quietly thoughtful and accepting of whatever life has thrown in her path. Bessie is feisty and still ready to fight for what she believes, to stand up to every injustice. And both exude a strong sense of personal pride coupled with a charming sense of humor.
The production, currently at Long Wharf Theatre, then moving to Harford Stage, is adapted from the book of the same name by Emily Mann. Sarah and Elizabeth Delany collaborated on writing the script, along with Amy Hill Hearth. It opened on Broadway in 1995, while the sisters were still alive, receiving three Tony nominations.
The play takes place in 1993 in the Mount Vernon, New York home where Sadie and Bessie reside.
Not much happens in the three 30-minute-plus acts. Sadie and Bessie speak directly to the audience as they reminisce over old photos or go about their various chores and tell the powerful stories of their growing up years in North Carolina, daughters of a former slave, subjected to segregation and Jim Crow laws and the scars left by such inhumanity.
They recall their move to New York as young women in the 1920s during the Harlem renaissance, experiencing such milestones as women’s right to vote and the civil rights movement, while leading professional careers -- Sadie as a one of the first African Americans to teach (home economics) in a white New York school and Bessie as the second African-American women dentist licensed in New York -- impressively achieved against the double of whammy of racism and sexism.
The true essence of this production is the fine acting by Cole and Pressley who, decades younger than their roles, so seamlessly take on the slow, deliberate movements and pauses of such elderly women, and interact so gracefully, like a beautifully choreographed dance.
One can feel these sisters’ deep love and affection for one another, despite their very different personalities; in the way they finish each other’s sentences, and even each other’s tasks, as they prepare their elaborate annual meal in honor of their beloved late father’s birthday.
Sadie notes that their father became “the first elected negro bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A...a long way for a man who was born a slave on a Georgia plantation, but if you had known papa, you wouldn’t be surprised. He was always improving himself, and he and Mama brought us up to (Bessie chimes in) reach high.” This was a lesson that clearly stayed with them throughout their lives.
As educated and socio-politically aware as they are, they are babes in the woods when it comes to relationships, neither having had much experience with men due to their protected childhoods by parents who understandably didn’t trust the world at large.
Not enough can be said for the exquisite set by Alexis Distler -- the stone entranceway and entire downstairs of the women’s cozy, grandmotherly Mount Vernon home, including fully furnished living room, kitchen, and dining room, and even light filtering through a curtain in a semi-exposed hallway.
Distler pays attention to the minutest details from every cup and saucer and cooking utensil to actual steam coming off a dish the women just took out of the oven. He also designed the projections -- a running series of black and white photographs at the top of the stage -- that help illustrate the various points in history as the women refer to them.
Karen Perry, costume designer and Carol “Cici” Campbell, wig designer deserve a lot of credit for magically transforming the much younger actors into believably elderly women. Nicole Pearce’s warm and nostalgic lighting further sets the mood of the play.
If I have one complaint, it’s that although the storytelling is rich in its delivery, one does feel a certain lack of drama in the script. There are no epiphanies, no true story arc, no suspense. We want to know more about these women’s personal feelings, in addition to all their experiences, in order to add depth and texture to what is a very even and polished, but uneventful performance.
That said, this is an important play. It is a good education in American history and makes us accountable for the racism still so prevalent today. Appropriate for adults and kids alike, Having Our Say is a celebration of the human spirit, well timed to have opened during Black History Month.
Having Our Say is at Long Wharf Theatre 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through March 13. For tickets call 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org
The show then moves to Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., downtown Hartford, where it opens March 31 and continues through April 24. For tickets call 860-525-5601 or online www.hartfordstage.com.
This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies, and online at zip06.com