Actors Charm in “Having Our Say” at Long Wharf

by Tom Holehan

Stealing scenes with the dexterity a professional criminal would envy, Olivia Cole and Brenda Pressley are currently having a ball playing the true-life Delany sisters in “Having Our Say”. Emily Mann’s play is a co-production with Long Wharf Theatre and Hartford Stage. This is a sturdy revival of a crowd-pleasing play.

Adapted from the book by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth and subtitled “The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years”, the play depends entirely on the crucial chemistry between the two actresses cast as the Delanys. At Long Wharf, the luminous Olivia Cole plays the complacent, sensible Sadie and Brenda Pressley is her more contrary sister, Bessie. These actresses “of a certain age” are playing well beyond their years here with admirable verisimilitude. Set in 1993 at the Delany home in Mount Vernon, NY (the busy, beautifully appointed set is by Alexis Distler), “Having Our Say” is an overview of African-American history as seen by two witnesses to the revolution. Names are dropped (Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Robeson) and incidences are recalled (the Jim Crow era, Thomas/Hill hearings). The sisters are always good company as they begin with a photographic history of their personal lives and segue into wide-ranging commentary on a variety of topics all while preparing a huge meal.

There are lovely moments throughout and while Pressley has the livelier role with some sassy observations and testy remembrances, it is Cole’s quiet, dignified recollection of past events that linger in the memory. Her bittersweet nostalgia for an old boyfriend or the pain of losing her beloved mother is marked by both poignancy and grit. Pressley is a marvelous foil for her and the two women obviously love each other as they spar, laugh and complete each other’s sentences. They also perform an amazing amount of stage business while keeping the conversation percolating. Watching two masters at the top of their craft is pretty much the whole show here.

This brings us to Emily Mann’s adaptation. The play, as such, is more story theatre than effective drama, more tell than show. After some time, the play starts to repeat itself as similar incidents with the same outcome are addressed and relived by the sisters. By curtain, it has become somewhat preachy saddled with an ending and a final line that just fizzles. Were it not for the sheer force of the Cole/Pressley persona, the play would not be nearly as entertaining as it turns out to be.

In addition to the wonderful set (Ms. Distler is also responsible for the sepia-toned video design), Karen Perry has costumed her actors with an accurate eye to character and Nicole Pearce’s soft lighting bathes the project in nostalgia. Directed smoothly by Jade King Carroll, it is refreshing to see such a female dominated production both on stage and behind-the-scenes. All told, “Having Our Say” has charm to spare.

“Having Our Say” continues at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 13 before transferring to Hartford Stage, March 31-April 24. For further information or ticket reservations call the Long Wharf Theatre box office at 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org or Hartford Stage at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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