The Charming Delanys have their say at Long Wharf
By Tom Nissley
Emily Mann’s play, “Having Our Say,” about two famous centenarian sisters, is a charming look backward over the lives and work of Miss Sadie (Olivia Cole) and Dr. Bessie (Brenda Pressley) Delany. It is set (Alexis Distler) in the middle of their traditional brick and stucco suburban home in Mount Vernon, New York, beautifully cut open so that the audience can follow them from the kitchen to a back hall and forward into the dining room, where they are preparing to celebrate their father’s birthday – a ritual they perform together each year. From time to time projections play on the stucco portion, above the stage: pictures of family members, events and political rallies or moments in the twentieth century, that reinforce the memories the two are sharing.
The time is 1993. Sadie was born in 1889, and Bessie in 1891. Their father was an ex slave, and their mother was “issue-free,” that is Negro but not a slave or daughter of a slave. The two sisters address the audience as if we have come to visit in their home, and tell us how they attended St. Augustine Academy, where their father was vice-principal and their mother a teacher, how they then came to New York to study at Pratt Institute and Columbia, how Sadie became the first black teacher of domestic science in the New York School System, and Bessie a dentist in New York.
They lived for a while in Harlem. Along the way they tell of the changes around them as women’s rights and civil rights and two world wars came and went. How, eventually, their brother built the house in Mount Vernon where we are visiting them, and how their mother came to live with them after she was widowed. As she became older, they realized that one of them would have to stay home with her so Bessie closed her dental practice because Sadie’s teaching career would provide them a pension in a few years.
The play is full of historical and personal references, and set around the two sisters cooking together as they prepare foods their father liked, baking a cake, creating a salad, stuffing a chicken...Sadie is the calmer of the two. Bessie, by her own proud admission, is more peppery, likely to stand up for causes and confront those who don’t. I was charmed into complete attention as they gently cajoled each other and laughed at their differences, and found their acting completely believable. As the play ends, they thank us (audience) for stopping by, promise to pray for us tonight, and wish us goodbye.
Advice to you. Plan to see this production at Long Wharf where it is playing now, or at Hartford Stage where it plays in April. Tickets and information at www.longwharf.org, or www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre, March 2, 2016