Emily Mann’s stage adaptation of the best-selling book “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” is having a revival at McCarter Theater where it had its premiere in 1995 under Mann’s direction and subsequently moved to Broadway. It is a fine idea to bring back this endearing play in honor of Mann’s 20th anniversary as the McCarter Theater’s artistic director.
Whatever tweaking has or has not been done with this three-act play, it appears a bit sharper and perhaps even timelier now than it did in 1995. Sadie and Bessie Delany were the second and third of 10 children born to Henry Beard Delany and Nanny James Logan. With their lives spanning more than 100 years, Sadie (1889-1999) and Bessie (1891-1995) have a notable legacy and admirably fulfilled a very special destiny. And what they have to say has a special resonance in the current political and social climate.
Their father, a former slave and the first African-American to become an Episcopal bishop, knew what he was doing by instilling in these two outspoken children the need to make their mark and have their say. That they did through turbulent, racist times and despite the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the implementing of segregation.
The play unfolds as a visit to the Mount Vernon, New York, home of two remarkable Black-American “maiden ladies,” whose lives have been exalted by their dedication to the most fundamental and profound human values. If listening to Sadie and Bessie reaffirming those values as they review significant episodes in their lives alone are sufficient to provide a totally satisfying dramatic experience, then “Having Our Say” is a triumph.
The play, however, is willing to rest its case entirely on the ability of its two principals to express their opinions and display their sentiments with charm, vitality, and a few sparks of sass as they prepare tea for themselves and for the unseen visitor (the audience or interviewer). “If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar! Sadie is sugar, and I’m the spice,” says Bessie, who doubts she has been good enough to get past St. Peter at the gate.
Bessie’s declaration sets the tone, tempo, and temperament for a play that takes place in 1993 in the sitting room, dining room, and kitchen of the home during the course of one day. Set designer Daniel Ostling has enabled the three perfectly evocative locations to smoothly glide into place all within a large frame on which family portraits and historical events and places are projected. The wonderful projections, including street scenes of Harlem in the early part of the 20th century, are designed by Wendall K. Harrington.
Lizan Mitchell and Yvette Freeman are the two excellent actors assigned to play Sadie and Bessie (originally played by Mary Alice and Gloria Foster). Heightened by warm and often playful interaction, Sadie’s and Bessie’s musings and remembrances are shared but not expanded beyond what the reader will get on the printed page. As a staged piece, we seem just a bit short-changed. Their lives-in-retrospect are given respect and reverence, but not, in this context, much dramatic weight.
Notwithstanding the wit and wisdom in the sisters’ home-spun banter, the play understandably invests virtually all its energies on the sisters’ memories. Sadie’s and Bessie’s personal connections to key historical moments are always interesting and occasionally compelling: recollections of deeds and events work better on the printed page than they do on the stage.
Bessie’s career as a Harlem dentist whose office became a center for political strategists and political activists, and Sadie’s recollection of how she landed her job as New York City’s first domestic science high school teacher, are the most amusing and solidly dramatized portions. It is during the preparation of their father’s favorite meal, including all the necessary slicing, dicing, folding, and stirring (an annual event in honor of their father’s birthday) that Sadie and Bessie touch us most deeply, as old women still deeply committed to the living of life.
With respect for the docudrama form, Mann has extracted her play directly from the year-and-a-half of interviews with the Delany sisters, as constructed by the book’s journalist, Amy Hill Hearth. Mann is pragmatically faithful to the source, but it doesn’t always make for exciting theater. By relying rigidly on the framework of an interview, Mann isn’t particularly concerned with dramatic peaks.
She has a keen ear and eye for the truthful moment, however, and it never fails her or her actors. One becomes grateful for the unexpected and always disarming curves delivered by Freeman and Mitchell. Mitchell, who played Bessie in this play’s national tour, is a delight as the more demure and less confrontationally inclined Sadie. And Freeman, whom you may recall as Nurse Haleh Adams for 15 seasons of “ER,” is wonderful as the feisty Bessie. Sadie and Bessie take their turns talking to us, but they also talk to each other, over each other, in counter-point and sometimes in unison. It symbolizes their closeness. Its effect is pretentious, but it is also irresistible.
At its best, which is often enough, the play reveals the power of the positive spirit, even as it revels in the personalities of two of the most courageous, extraordinary, and inspiring women to come down the pike. Considering the diverse nature of these women, it is amazing how compatible they remained throughout their long life together.
If the play gets a little sappy and feels unnecessarily protracted, the final impression is one of having spent two-and-one-half hours with two uncommon and remarkable women. And what would these “ladies” have to say today about Barack Obama, the first Black-American to become president of the United States of America? Both Bessie and Sadie are now dead, but they did live to see the play when it appeared on Broadway. If by any chance you didn’t see it the first time around, take this opportunity to be inspired by the experiences of two fiercely independent black women who, despite the many obstacles they faced and had to overcome, loved being Americans.
“Having Our Say,” through Sunday October 18, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.