Having Our Say
At the Goodman (Albert) Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—The Delany sisters are delivering a master class in American social history at the Goodman Albert Theatre. The time is 1993 and the place is the Delany home in Mount Vernon, New York. The play is formatted as the sisters entertaining the audience as their houseguests listening to them reminisce about their lives. And what long lives they lived. In 1993 Bessie was 101 years old and Sadie was 103.
The play has been adapted by Emily Mann from a best-selling memoir the Delany sisters wrote with journalist Amy Hill Hearth. The play starts out with Bessie and Sadie taking the audience through mini descriptions of the Delany family starting in pre-Civil War slave days. Their shared narrative is casual and often humorous and a little dull. About 20 minutes into the play I was settling myself in for a mildly patronizing evening. The ladies were often endearing and said cute things like Bessie explaining their longevity by remarking “I say it’s ‘cause we never had husbands to worry us to death.” But the opening remains longer on manner than matter.
As the play moved along in its conversational manner, the audience gradually is introduced to a world almost entirely shaped by race. The women were variously “colored,” “Negro,” or “black.” Bessie and Sadie didn’t like the current common label “African-American.” Neither of them had ever been to Africa. They were Americans. But as Bessie reflected ruefully, “We loved our country even when it didn’t love us back.”
The sisters suffered from the racism of white America throughout the 20th century but they were better off than countless others. The Delanys were poor but they were raised within a loving extended family in North Carolina. Both parents were figures of some importance in their communities, the father rising from a former slave to becoming an Episcopal bishop while their mother helped run a private school.
Education was important in the Delany household and the sisters and their eight siblings were protected from the worst hardships of life in the South during the Jim Crow years. Still, there were close calls, like when Bessie had to escape from a potential lynch mob in a Southern railroad station.
In the early 1900’s the sisters moved to New York City, the vibrant city a huge culture shock after the slower moving life of North Carolina. Sadie became the first black teacher of domestic science in New York City’s high schools. Bessie was one of the city’s first woman dentists. Gradually the audience comes to recognize the pride and resiliency that shaped the lives of the two sisters in a country that never let them forget their race.
The play maintains its even keel atmosphere throughout its nearly two hours on the stage. There was no soapbox oratory and no self-pity. The only physical action involved the sisters preparing a meal in their kitchen as they chatted. The most emotional moment wasn’t a cry of outrage at the racial injustice they endured for so many years. It was Sadie’s heartbreaking and tearful memory of her mother’s death and what the woman mean to her.
“Having Our Say” injects references to some of the major racial players of the time, like Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. Du Bois. There are vivid vignettes describing the energy of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and a moving meeting with Eleanor Roosevelt, a white person revered by American blacks.
Most of the play’s script is taken from the 1993 book. The talk is plain and natural with no speechifying. The sisters are entertaining company as vivid individuals aside from their significance as testifiers to a century of racial stress.
The Goodman production is superbly cast with Ella Joyce as Bessie and Marie Thomas as Sadie. Joyce captures Bessie’s more aggressive personality while Joyce has a softer style. Joyce’s Bessie doesn’t stand for any nonsense while Thomas’s Sadie doesn’t go out of her way to make waves. Both are tough minded and they lived together united by an unyielding bond of affection.
“Having Our Say” is an intimate play but Goodman has chosen it for the larger Albert Theatre rather than the smaller Owen Theatre. But the two performers fill up stage effortlessly, orchestrated by Chuck Smith’s unobtrusive but sure-handed directing. The apparently spontaneous talk flows naturally, creating a verbal mosaic of dozens of characters who were prominent in the lives of the sisters. The physical production also receives much help from Linda Buchanan’s heavily furnished period décor. The production makes deft use of the Goodman turntable stage, rotating in front of the audience to take the viewers from room to room.
The vintage costume designs by Birgit Rattenborg Wise are appropriate to the time and circumstances of the two elderly women. John Culbert designed the lighting and Ray Nardelli the sound. Mike Tutaj has seasoned the setting with projections of Delany family members that evoke an evocative sense of place. There are also film clips that take us to Harlem during its heyday as the capital of black cultural life.
The Delany sisters had a few more years left after they finished their book, Bessie dying in 1995 and Sadie in 1999. The sisters are often so informal in their storytelling that a reader may not fully appreciate what the ladies achieved. They not only lived long, they lived honestly and sometimes courageously. They didn’t yield to anger or bitterness or defeat. They were two nice people and their long lives were worth living.
-The show gets a rating of
“Having Our Say” runs through June 10 at the Goodman Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn Street. Performances are Tuesday and Thursday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $73. For information, call 312 443 3800 or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/
Contact Dan: ZeffDaniel@Yahoo.com May 2018
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