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Vol. LXIII, No. 38
 
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
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Music/Theater


HAVING THEIR SAY: Sadie Delaney (Lizan Mitchell, right) points to her sister Bessie (Yvette Freeman) in the Berlind Theatre’s season opening production of “Having Our Say” that was written and directed by Emily Mann.

Delany Sisters Deliver Their Tales of Life in the 20th Century; McCarter Presents Timely, Captivating Revival of “Having Our Say”

Donald Gilpin

Was Joe Wilson’s “you lie” outburst during Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress racially motivated, as former President Jimmy Carter and others have suggested? Has the much-publicized recent criticism of Obama and his actions been characterized by underlying, perhaps even unconscious, anti-black prejudice? Was Sergeant James Crowley just doing his job when he arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in his Cambridge, Mass. home two months ago, or was Crowley guilty of racial profiling? As the national dialogue on race heats up in the first year of the Obama presidency, it is certain that if Sadie and Bessie Delany were still alive, they would have something to say on those issues. The African-American sisters, whose words of reminiscence and wisdom constitute Having Our Say: The Delany SistersFirst 100 Years (1995), currently playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, would certainly have disagreed with each other, and they would have delivered their opinions with spirited conviction and intelligence.

This loving, lively and engaging revival of Having Our Say, adapted by Emily Mann (who also directs) from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, shines a timely and fascinating beacon of light on the current racial discussion.

Sadie and Bessie Delany have obviously been having their say since 1889 and 1891, respectively, when they were born. Ms. Mann first brought their voices to life on the big McCarter stage in February 1995, then took the show to Broadway in April, where it won numerous awards before its adaptation for television in 1999. The time is right for the Delany sisters to have their say again — this time, most appropriately, in the more intimate Berlind Theatre at McCarter.

Timeliness — or is this timelessness? — is a quality difficult to explain, and even more difficult to achieve. Having Our Say, though beautifully, vividly staged by Ms. Mann and two superb actresses, with support from a top-flight design team, has none of the hallmarks of cutting edge drama. The essence of the play is simply the two Delany sisters at home, preparing dinner, a celebratory dinner to commemorate their father’s birthday, and talking directly to the audience as if we were their guests.

And it’s not as if these two women, Sadie 103 and Bessie 101 at the time of the 1993 interviews on which the play is based, are particularly modern or up-to-date in their views. They dress like your great grandmother. They respect and maintain the traditions and values that they and their family have lived by all their lives. They see themselves as “Negro” or “colored” rather than “black” or “African-American.” They eschew modern conveniences: “BESSIE: The phone company comes by and pesters us. SADIE: Finally we told the man, ‘Mister, if the phone company installed a phone for free and paid for a man to stand there and answer it for us, seven days a week … BESSIE and SADIE (together) We still wouldn’t want a phone!’”

The simplicity of this play, the down-to-earth vital humanity of the two women and their words, and the superior performances of Lizan Mitchell (Sadie) and Yvette Freeman (Bessie) — all richly infused with humor, feeling and vibrant life — enable this drama to transcend what seems like a less than thrilling premise.

A study in contrasts, these sisters are both disarmingly direct, as they reflect with uncanny memory back through six generations and recall dozens of relatives and other characters from their past. The two hour and a half visit with the Delany sisters is filled with humor and sorrows, with a panoply of the history of our country from the time of their father’s boyhood in slavery up to the final decade of the twentieth century, a fascinating study of a 100-year relationship between sisters, and plenty of lessons on life and living well.

“I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do in this life, child,” Sadie explains, as she describes how she became the first African-American teacher of domestic science in the New York City school system. “Life is short, and it’s up to you to make it sweet.”

Set in the Delany sisters’ Mount Vernon, New York home in 1993, the play proceeds simply from the sitting room, where the sisters greet us, two chairs facing straight out, a piano, table, and staircase adorned with dozens of family photos; to the dining room where they set the table formally for dinner; then to the kitchen for the food preparation; and finally back to the sitting room for the final scene. The sisters stay mostly within a central rectangular playing area, about 20 feet wide and 12 feet high, with photos of family and historical events and newsreel film footage projected onto the surrounding walls, as Sadie and Bessie recount and make reference to significant events of the past century.

Set design by Daniel Ostling, with lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and costumes by Karen Perry, original music and sound by Rob Millburn and Michael Bodeen and projection design by Wendall K. Harrington provide convincing, seamless support for the two sisters and their lives. The scenes shift smoothly and unobtrusively as furniture, props, and accoutrements supply just enough detail to take us effectively into the Delanys’ home. The music and projections help to provide effective transitions between scenes and to establish a rich background of the microcosm of the Delany family and the macrocosm of 20th century America.

The daughters of the first African-American to become an Episcopal bishop and a woman of mixed parentage, the Delany sisters recount their personal, family, and career struggles: early years in North Carolina, close family ties, romance, and disappointment, along with inconsolable loss and deaths as the years go by, harsh Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and narrow escapes, encounters with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, moving to New York for college and into their ground-breaking professional careers — Sadie a teacher and Bessie a dentist, getting the vote in 1920 and never missing a chance to vote since, the Harlem Renaissance, meetings with Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, and other prominent men and women of the twentieth century, then facing the excitement and frustrations of the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the challenges of old age.

Ms. Mitchell, seasoned actress on stage (Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theater), screen and TV, and Ms. Freeman, 15 seasons as Nurse Haleh Adams on ER among numerous other TV, film and stage credits, create these contrasting sisters with spirited flair and utter credibility.

Ms. Mitchell’s “sweet sister Sadie,” slim, mild-mannered, soft-spoken, sensitive and shy, is “molasses,” avoiding confrontation, always looking for the good side, no pushover but never willing to forsake her demeanor of kindness and civility.

Ms. Freeman’s Dr. Bessie Delany is “vinegar,” direct and feisty, never hesitating to speak her mind and assert her right to what she wants. In one of her first lines on stage, she fixes the audience with a wide-eyed glare and warns, “People learned not to mess with me from Day One.”

“The way I see it,” Sadie observes, “There’s room in the world for both me and Bessie. We kind of balance each other out.” As Sadie says, they “probably know each other better than any two human beings on this earth. After so long, we are in some ways like one person.”

Watching the chemistry between these two as they finish each others’ sentences, speak out in chorus with familiar sayings and memories, replay many events and interactions from their past, is like watching the closest of family members interacting with powerful affection, intense love of laughter, and intense love of life.

This production is a fitting opening to celebrate Emily Mann’s 20th season as McCarter Theatre’s artistic director. As writer and director — she has made only a few changes in her original 1995 script — Ms. Mann offers here a timely new perspective on one of her greatest triumphs. With the Delany sisters no longer alive, an African-American in the White House and the national dialogue on race proceeding amidst a flurry of achievements and setbacks, let’s hope that, through Ms. Mann’s play, the Delany sisters have their say for many years to come in helping us to understand ourselves and chart our lives.

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