Many of us held our breath on election night in November while returns were counted, projected, and announced. When the results were in and Obama had been elected president of the United States, Emily Mann, artistic director at McCarter Theater, says that among her first thoughts were: “How happy Sadie and Bessie would have been to have lived to see this.”
So it seems only fitting to inaugurate Mann’s 20th season at the helm of the McCarter with a revival of the hugely successful play from McCarter’s 1995 season, “Having Our Say,” based on the lives of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two indomitable African American women (though they eschewed that description, preferring “colored” or “negro”) who lived through a huge chunk of American history. At the time of the play, they are 103 and 101 years old.
During the course of the play, we learn a lot about them and the world events that swirled around them. Their father, who was born in slavery, became a minister and educator. Sadie and Bessie were raised with siblings on the campus of an all-black college in North Carolina, where their mother was an administrator and their father taught. The two young women ended up in New York City where Sadie earned a master’s degree at Columbia and was “the first colored teacher in the New York City school system,” and Bessie graduated from Columbia Dental School and had her office in Harlem.
The subtitle of their biography is “The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years.” It is unfortunate that they didn’t live just a little longer to see Obama sworn into office. Sadie died in 1995; Bessie in 1999. But both of them had a front row seat to an impressive panoply of American history and to Broadway’s Booth Theater to see this play about their lives.
Mann will give a talk about her revisiting the play from the fresh perspective of changes in our country in the last two decades on Thursday, August 27, at Princeton Public Library, as part of the McCarter Live series. “Certain parts of their stories resonate much more deeply now than they had previously,” says Mann. “For instance, they came from a family whose mother was born as an issue-free Negro — one-quarter black. And she married a Negro man. But the girls had a white grandfather they were very close to.” Like Obama, they had a personal sense of “mixed race,” which is really what America is all about anyway. Very few Americans, whatever their ancestry, have married only within their specific group, be it Scots, Italian, Scandinavian, or something else.
After its record-breaking run at the McCarter, “Having Our Say” moved to Broadway where it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play and had a national tour. Mann beams with the pride of a proud parent as she races through the play’s achievements. “It became the most produced play in America. A real sort of grand slam. Made into a movie for TV, it won Peabody and Christopher awards. Had a tour of black colleges, played in South Africa at the Market Theater. What an amazing life!” Her conclusion: “And because the McCarter community helped to make this play the boffo success that it was, I knew that it would be good to bring it back to celebrate.”
Compared to the Delaney sisters’ 200-plus combined years, the 20 years Mann is celebrating at the helm of the McCarter may seem insignificant. However, a lot of theatrical history has been made during that time span. When I talked backstage with Mann at the end of her rehearsal day, she happily recounted some of the highlights of those years, with a cup of tea and a saltine cracker in hand.
Since assuming artistic leadership at the McCarter, the “turnaround in artistic fortune,” as Mann calls it, was the packed-audiences, sell-out, of the 1992 production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” starring Frances McDormand, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Linda Hunt. This was the solid beginning of a loyal audience that continues to support the theater’s productions. In fact, one of the pleasant surprises that Mann has discovered over the years is how readily the audience accepts serious work. “Of course the audience developed as I developed as artistic director. That takes time to cultivate. But this is such a lively, smart crowd and even when they don’t like something, they have interesting comments to make.” This interaction with the audience has added to her sense of fulfillment in her work. “The theater is open to that communication and is congenial to the creative process.”
The secret of success in theater management, she feels, is to make the theater artist driven. She is certain that passion has to be the propellant. “Every single play has to be someone’s dream. Then we have to believe in that dream.” When theater management selects plays with an eye to what will “sell,” it rarely works. The only way I can select a season is to go with my gut feeling — what thrills me, the plays that I feel I just have to do. I can’t work any other way.”
Her mission from the onset has been to develop new plays, to take a fresh look at classics, and to attract other creative artists to join the process.
Mann takes a special delight in recalling director Stephen Wadsworth’s introduction of the plays of 18th century French playwright Marivaux. He directed several of his plays at McCarter and since then Marivaux has been widely produced in America. Mann herself has written and directed adaptations of classics, most recently directing her take on Chekhov, called “A Seagull in the Hamptons” during the 2007-’08 season.
She adds, “It’s lovely to have the new theater, the Berlind,” inaugurated in September, 2003, with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” by Nilo Cruz. Starring Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and an all-star Latino cast, it went on to Broadway and garnered a best play Tony nomination. The more intimate Berlind will give us a really close look as we are invited into Bessie and Sadie’s living room in this new production of “Having Our Say.”
McCarter’s new play development program has introduced 14 of the most frequently produced new plays in America. For a theater that isn’t primarily female-based or ethnically-based, “we’ve done more to introduce into the theater repertoire more plays by people of color and we are happy to be able to do this.” During the summer, McCarter invites a number of playwrights and a few directors to take residence for a week of total immersion in their work. Whatever they need, they get, be it a reading by actors or a talk with Mann, or just to be alone to think and write; there is no pressure to produce. As a result, work has blossomed. Christopher Durang wrote the whole second act of “Miss Witherspoon” and found a local inspiration for the title character’s name as well (Witherspoon Street in Princeton).
Mann has had a deep concern for social issues all of her life and this can be traced not only through the choices she has made as a director, but also through the plays she has written.
Her first play, “Annulla: a Survivor,” centered on a real-life person (the aunt of her college roommate) and how she, as a Jewish woman, survived the Nazi regime. “Execution of Justice” grew from the trial of the man who murdered Harvey Milk, the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco. “Greensboro” took a hard look at the Ku Klux Klan in this North Carolina town. “Still Life” investigated the life of a soldier who had returned from the Vietnam War. Last season she directed her play, “Mrs. Packard,” a strong plea for women’s rights.
The reputation that she has built at McCarter has attracted not only new but also established playwrights to come to Princeton to develop their new work as well, such as Edward Albee and Athol Fugard.
On Mann’s current agenda, in addition to directing “Having Our Say,” and making a few tweaks in her script, is helping with preproduction work on Albee’s “Me, Myself, and I” which premiered at the McCarter in January, 2008, and is now heading to a Broadway opening. Meanwhile she is playing “godmother” to Will Power’s new play, “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” opening at McCarter next January and to the new Richard Maltby-David Shire-John Weidman musical “Take Flight,” which opens in April. “There’s Broadway interest in these, too.” If that isn’t enough to accomplish, Mann is also working on a screenplay adaptation of a novel, “Grandma’s True Confession,” written by, she says, “one of my dearest friends.” This just happens to be the same friend who supplied the relative that spurred Mann’s first play “Annulla.” “I’ve come full circle,” she says.
“We have accomplished a lot, but there’s so much more to do.” She wants to add more diversity to the theater staff, and to audiences. She especially wants to encourage more young people to come to the theater. She found last season’s “Brother/ Sister Plays” an especially strong draw for younger people and feels that Will Power’s new play will prove the same.
“Don’t think I’m Pollyanna,” she says. The theater, as is everyone, is coping with the current financial crisis. “We’re fortunate that we have our priorities straight. Our entire staff has worked to cut the budget. We’ve practically been counting paper clips.” But she is pleased to report that they have managed to trim the budget by “an enormous six figure number, and we’re still mounting our most ambitious season to date. We’re not touching anything on the artistic side.”
Mann is very passionate about the work she does as administrator, director, and playwright. Her energy and focus are intense. Her enthusiasm is contagious. I had to force myself to check my watch. After all, this woman had worked all day and was now delaying her exit to dinner and a movie with her husband. I had to let her go even though she had favorite McCarter productions like “Glass Menagerie” and “Betsey Brown,” that she wanted to talk about but were only mentioned in passing. There were so many more highlights that we didn’t get to, like some favorites of mine: Mary Zimmerman’s “The Odyssey” and Tina Landau’s magical mounting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with GrooveLily performing live music. In some ways the years have flown by just as our time talking had.
Staying in high-tech mode, it seems appropriate to conclude by citing McCarter’s producing associate Adam Immerwahr’s blog as he, too, notes how much the world has changed since 1995, when “Having Our Say” was first produced. Immersahr quotes from the play as Bessie says: “If I was president, the first thing I would do would be to say that people over 100 years of age no longer have to pay taxes! But I guess it will be 1,000 years — probably never — before a colored person is elected president of the United States.” Maybe Obama can add her tax exemption request to his agenda.
McCarter Live, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Thursday, August 27, 7:30 p.m. Emily Mann, celebrating 20 years as artistic director of McCarter Theater, discusses a revival of her play, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.” The play, adapted from a book by Sarah L. Delany, A. Elizabeth Delany, and Amy Hill Hearth, runs at McCarter from September 11 to October 18. 609-924-8822 or www.princetonlibrary.org.