Two old women reminiscing about their lives may not seem the stuff of gripping theater, but then the Delany sisters are not just any old women.
As the voices of oral history behind Having Our Say, a memoir written and published with the aid of Amy Hill Hearth, the Delanys, 104 and 102 when the book was published, created a best-selling sensation in the 1990s. Adapted for the stage by Emily Mann, the show had an extended Broadway run and received several Tony nominations. With the book and the play, you might easily suppose that Bessie and Sadie Delany, who died in 1995 and 1999 respectively, have had their day. And you’d be wrong.
A revival currently at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Jade King Carroll and faultlessly enacted by Olivia Cole (Miss Sadie Delany, the elder by two years) and Brenda Pressley (Dr. Bessie Delany), is a significant play to stage in an election year. Looking back over American history since the Civil War, which their parents and grandparents lived through, the Delanys — who proudly voted in every election after women got the vote (which they remember) — provide a compelling sense of growing up in a racist country that, while it improves, needs to improve much more.
The play runs through March 13.
The sisters’ history traces being, as they would say, “colored” in America in the last century. As their self-designation of choice, “colored” makes sense, given their mixed descent from Virginian slave, Caucasian, and Native American. They don’t see themselves as “black,” much less “African-American.” They remember their white grandfather, who could not marry their black grandmother legally, but whose union was recognized by a local churchman as more legitimate than some marriages in the area. They remember their beloved father, who, as a slave, was taught to read by his owners — which was also not legal. Their sense of how the world works began early, and they used certain shrewd methods to advance themselves in life. Bessie was the second African-American woman to become a licensed dentist in New York State. Sadie was the first African-American woman to teach domestic science in high school there.
Olivia Cole’s Sadie is devout, retiring, gracious. As the elder, she maintains a gentle twinkle when considering her more headstrong, contentious, and sassy little sister. Pressley’s Bessie tends to bring up unpleasant memories, such as her fear of being lynched once when she spoke rudely to a drunken “rebbie boy” (the sisters’ term for white racists); but for some whites she dearly loved, such as their grandfather and an affectionate teacher, she would likely detest the race for behaviors she observed in the Jim Crow South, including lynchings. In those days, as a child, she was the one who would risk a swipe of water from the “whites only” drinking fountain, just to prove that it didn’t taste any different from the “colored water.”
It would be easy to spend the entirety of this review describing who these women were, but for that, you should simply go see the play. They tell their own stories much better than I could. But the show entails certain interesting elements that I will tell you about, beginning with the incredibly detailed set by Alexis Distler. In the 1950s, the sisters, who had lived in Harlem for decades, moved to Mt. Vernon in Westchester county. Mann’s adaptation recreated the sisters’ home, and Long Wharf adheres to this principle — replicating their house complete with front stoop, interior staircase, and, importantly, an almost fully functioning kitchen.
The surroundings in which the rather reclusive sisters lived tell a lot about them. We feel like visitors to their home and see their middle-class gentility. The special togetherness that comes from enjoying hospitality, looking at their heirlooms and family photos (projected above the playing space), makes the play something you don’t just watch, but live through. Particularly as, for most of the play, the sisters are busy making their father’s favorite meal, as they do each year in honor of his birthday. Stuffing a chicken, baking a cake, making ham and ambrosia and macaroni and cheese, the sisters are clearly in their element, working with automatic precision while keeping up a dialogue, in a routine that creates a steady sense of the familiar.
The staging offers some subtle moments as well. After telling how her father ran off her beau Frank, who he didn’t like much, Sadie goes to putter around downstage while Bessy confides in us her view of the subject. And the way the actresses react to each other, often mutely but knowingly, adds humor and characterization. Since the sisters mostly agree on the facts of their stories, their differences come from temperament, enlarging our sense of the lives behind the stories.
The Delanys include personal insights on the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson (Bessie was his dentist), and timely comments about how progress in civil rights seemed to have been sidetracked by Vietnam in the 1960s, dashing their hopes that the country would “finally grow up, come to terms with this race mess.” Were they alive today, they’d still be waiting.
Having Our Say plays at Long Wharf through March 13.