"Having Our Say" at Long Wharf

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Sadie and Bessie Delany were born in 1889 and 1891 respectively.Their father, a vice- principal of a North Carolina church school, was a former slave. Sadie grew up to be a teacher and Bessie became a dentist. Both graduated from Columbia University, which was quite an accomplishment not only for women, but also women of color at that time. Having lived to be over 100, the Delany sisters certainly had a lot to say about their lives and the changes they saw during all those years, so they wrote a best-selling book shortly before they died. Now their history takes the form of a play by Emily Mann. This production is currently at Long Wharf Theatre and will go on to Hartford Stage next month. It features two very believable performers: Olivia Cole as “Sadie,” and Brenda Pressley as “Bessie,” who are well directed by Jade King Carroll. Alexis Distler designed the detailed set. The interesting layout of the dining room, kitchen and living room are so complete with period furnishings, rugs and dishes, one can walk in and feel right at home.

As warmly welcomed guests, we are invited into the Delany sisters’ Mount Vernon, New York, home for an afternoon cup of tea and pastries. Sadie introduces herself and with a bit of humor, tells us that the two sisters were the eldest of ten children. They never married, and when people ask them why, she jokes, “...Maybe that’s the reason we lived so long.” However, Sadie further explains that while longevity runs in their family, the sisters also kept the habits they were brought up with. They were strict Methodists who said their prayers every night, and also ate plenty of fresh vegetables and meat. Most of all, this large family was raised to believe that nothing could hold them back from whatever they wished to achieve. “...We each “have different personalities. “...Bessie is more of a scrapper...I was more like my mother, ” Sadie relates, “...but, I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do.”

Bessie tells us that although she was a political activist, she preferred to be referred to as “Negro” or “Colored” rather than “Black.”“I’m not black, I’m brown,” she frankly states. The sisters go on to explain that their very devoted, black and white grandparents carried on a secret, illicit relationship. “...Some of our relatives could have passed as ‘White,’ but were too proud to do so.” As she and Sadie explain their backgrounds, wonderful portraits of their handsome family are projected onto the kitchen wall.

“I was torn between two issues -- colored, and women’s rights. But it seemed to me that no matter how much I had to put up with as a woman, the bigger problem was being colored. People looked at me and the first thing they saw was Negro, not woman,” Bessie states.

The women consider their stories to be the progression of American history...not a particularly “black” or “women’s” history. Along the way, the sisters recall their association with the singer Marion Anderson and the actor Paul Robeson. “They were treated badly,” one of them casually remarks, without going into much detail.

Sadie explains that when they moved to Mt. Vernon, N.Y., which is in Westchester County, it was an upper class, white neighborhood which has now changed to mostly Negro. “When we first bought the land, no one knew who we were until the foundation was poured and we moved in...the neighbors were surprised when they found out!” Interestingly, when Bessie retired from dentistry and moved there, they never had a phone installed. “...We didn’t want to be bothered by it. Folks simply wrote letters or dropped in.” However, when some rough teenagers began to hang out on their street, and the sisters felt threatened, Sadie, who was “...way out of character,” according to Bessie, went out and successfully dealt with them by threatening to call the police “...on the phone which we did not have!”

“Having our Say,” is like sitting down in grandma’s living room and casually learning about the changes that took place in America during a relatively short period of time. Unfortunately, it’s hard to keep the audiences attention focused for two hours. In the second act, the women hold your interest while preparing favorite foods to commemorate their late father’s birthday. The dishes looked so good that we expected the women to give copies of their recipes to the audience. Had they lived long enough, it would have been interesting to hear what the sisters thought about President Obama.

Side Note:
Each season, Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of Long Wharf Theatre, tries to reach out to various ethnic groups in order to cultivate a mixed audience. So, by chance, I happened to approach an elderly woman in the lobby who personally knew the Delany sisters. She told me that the play touched her because it was very real. As a woman scientist, and especially a woman of color, she had encountered the same frustrations that were expressed here, first-hand. Apparently, she also stood her ground in order to get where she wanted.

Plays through March 13 Tickets: 23-787-4282
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” March/2016

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