Bessie and Sadie Delany are centenarian maiden ladies. “Not old maids,” Bessie points out. They’re adorable, well-informed and spry for 100+ years. They’ve been witnesses to a century of U.S. history and they’re two women you might like to adopt as your own grands.
The Goodman Theatre’s new production of Emily Mann’s play, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, is skillfully directed by Chuck Smith, himself a student of history and African American history. He says, “I don’t think history—especially African American history—is well taught in this country. Kids need to know about their country, so any chance I get, I’ll put it out there.”
The sisters’ story begins in Raleigh, NC, and carries through their adult life in New York, with friends in the Harlem Renaissance and later in the civil rights movement. They are both outspoken and active on labor and political issues.
Sadie (Marie Thomas) was born in 1889 and Bessie (Ella Joyce) in 1891. Their father, a former slave, achieved an education and became a teacher and the first African American Episcopal bishop. He saw to it that his daughters and his other eight children were educated too. Both sisters attained educations including graduate degrees—Bessie as a dentist and Sadie as a teacher. They have lived together all their lives, so they often finish each others’ sentences.
For two hours, the two sisters chat and talk to the audience as if we are visitors to their home, first in their Victorian parlor and then in their kitchen as they prepare a celebratory dinner to honor their late father’s birthday. Decorating a ham with pineapple slices, preparing a chicken for roasting, peeling and cutting fruit and vegetables.…the sisters keep busy throughout their two-hour conversation.
They discuss everything from their births and childhood, and their education at St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, where both their parents teach. Later they reminisce about their friends, artists and activists throughout the 20th century. They relive segregation, changes wrought by Jim Crow laws, voting rights and civil rights struggles, through their own experiences and their memories of historic events.
Thomas and Joyce both provide excellent performances. Their lifelong sisterhood is completely credible. They also speak and move like elderly women.
Having Our Say is important as oral history and it will be a valuable performance to help young people gain an understanding of changes that have taken place (and not taken place) in our history over the decades. Director Smith says in a playbill interview, “In terms of the African American experience, a lot has changed—but when you dig down deep, not much has changed…. If there’s anything good about the current [political] climate, it’s that we can now see clearly how little has changed.”
Linda Buchanan’s turntable set alternates between kitchen and living room. A wall of photo frames sometimes becomes illuminated with family and historical images using Mike Tutaj’s projections.
Having Our Say is great oral history, but it’s not always great theater. Two hours of two people talking to us without much action can be a long evening. The play would benefit by being cut to 80 or 90 minutes. Some childhood details could be trimmed and details added to the important events of their later years.
The Delany sisters first became known because of a New York Times profile by Amy Hill Hearth in 1991. She expanded the book into a full-length biography, co-authored with the two sisters, published in 1993. The book became a best seller and was adapted by playwright/director Emily Mann into the current play, which ran on Broadway for 317 performances and also was adapted as a CBS television film.
Sadie and Bessie Delany lived in their home in Mt. Vernon, NY, in their later years. Bessie retired as a dentist in 1950 and died in 1995 at the age of 104. Sadie retired from teaching in New York in 1960 and died in 1999 at 109.
Having Our Say continues at Goodman Theatre, 170 W. Dearborn St., through June 10. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday plus a Tuesday show on May 22. Tickets are $20-75.
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See the real Delany sisters on this video narrated by author Amy Hill Hearth.