A major revival of Emily Mann’s Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First Hundred Years is currently in production at The Goodman Theater, (The Albert), 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago through June 10th.The play is lovingly directed by Chuck Smith, and stars Ella Joyce and Marie Thomas in poignant and humorous portrayals of The Delaney sisters, 2 daughters from a big family of a minister born in slavery and a remarkable woman of mixed-race ancestry.
From the very first moment, the words of this engaging duo capture your imagination and your heart. You forget the amazing acting talent, superior writing and engrossing stagecraft and believe you are in the presence of 103 year-old Sadie and 101 year-old Bessie. You follow their dedicated, committed lives through a century, beginning with Reconstruction after the Civil War, and progressing through the abomination of Jim Crow laws. You go with them as they move to New York after college in the South, take part in the blossoming of Black Culture during the Harlem Renaissance. You enter with them into their participation in the civil right’s and women’s right’s movements, and smile indulgently as they explain how they stayed virgin “spinsters” after “watching the roosters worrying the hens”.
The story is not all gentle, the feelings not always placid as one would think they might seem from the viewpoint of extreme old age. While Sadie is the more laidback or accepting sister, Bessie is still full of fire and vinegar, mostly as she describes her outrage at the white people who have tormented her relatives and friends throughout the years. Make no mistake about it, while the style of the piece is a gracious invitation into their home, seen in episodes as the clever stage transforms from parlor to kitchen, and the two tradeoff well-worn comments and observations, this is a century full of racial prejudice we are invited to share.
At the time we encounter the refined yet formidable sisters they are living in Mount Vernon, New York. Their story is far from typical of the experience of most blacks born and raised, as they were, in Raleigh, North Carolina in the early 1890’s. Few rural black Southern children- even those with a minister/schoolteacher father- he went on to become the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church- and a school administrator mother went on to college and graduate school or a dental degree. Likewise, probably few dentists of any race or creed kept their rates the same for multiple decades so that their patients could continue to afford treatment; Bessie, in 1923, became the first black woman to work as a dentist in New York City, while Sadie was the first black woman to teach high-school level domestic science there.
The 2 “girls“ have worked out an elaborate way of achieving their own separate expressions of their own individual truths while finishing each other’s sentences. While Bessie uses sarcasm and bold pronouncements, and Sadie appears soft-spoken, both of them together are amused at each other, and both of them together are expressing complex realities. Having lived together so long, the disparate attitudes are just different sides of the same viewpoint, one is simply a more palatable version of the other; watch ladylike Sadie showing some spunk near the end as she bawls out some boys outside, persisting until she routs them thoroughly.
The sisters spend as much time in the kitchen of the set as they do in the parlor, their hands moving more spryly than their legs, and the recitation is much enlivened by the photographs of the family and locations reproduced behind the action. This is a memorable and provocative production, not to be missed. Thanks to Linda Buchanan for the intriguing turntable set, Mike Tutaj for the engrossing projections, Birgit Rattenborg Wise for the appropos respectable costumes, John Culbert for lighting the action and Ray Nardell for the sparkling sound.
All photos by Liz Lauren