The Delany sisters — Bessie and Sadie — want to tell you their story.
That’s the premise of “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” the Goodman Theatre’s insightful and entertaining look at African-American history through the eyes of two centenarians — Bessie is 101 and Sadie is 103 — who led accomplished, professional lives, rising above all manner of racial bias.
‘Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years’ ★★★1⁄2 When: To June 10 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $20-$75 Info: goodmantheatre.org
Adapted by Emily Mann from the Delany’s 1994 memoir written with Amy Hill Hearth, and first staged in 1995,“Having Our Say,” explores the sisters’ relationship, upbringing and family life all within the historical context of the life-changing events of the 20th century — from the bitter era of Jim Crow lynchings, segregation and Civil Rights demonstrations to the Great Depression, world wars and women’s right to vote.
Guided by Chuck Smith’s deft direction, Ella Joyce (Bessie) and Marie Thomas (Sadie) winningly bring the sisters to life with warmth, grace and good humor. During this two-hour immersion, one can’t help but be swept up in this compelling look at history through the memories of these two resilient women.
Speaking directly to the audience, the Delanys welcome everyone into their Mt. Vernon, New York, home circa 1993. Linda Buchanan’s dignified set design — a revolving living room/kitchen-dining room — filled with little telling details — adds much to our understanding of the lives of these proud “maiden ladies.” Dozens of empty gold picture frames hang above the stage as if waiting to be filled in with family history.
The Delanys’ story begins with a detailed examination of their family tree, accented by actual photographs of their ancestors projected on stage, revealing a detailed portrait of a loving family in the rural South. Those photos and the intriguing stories which accompany them are full of captivating ancestral lore.
Along with eight brothers and sisters, Bessie and Sadie were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., where their father, Henry, a minister, was a teacher, and their mixed-race mother, Nanny, an administrator. Their father, born into slavery, went on to become the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Their parents consistently floated the idea that “education always makes the difference.” And though there never was much money to be had, the sisters and their siblings found ways to prosper — attending college and finding careers despite the roadblocks set up for “colored people,” as the sisters like to refer to themselves.
Sadie was “the first colored teacher” to teach high school domestic sciences in New York City (there’s a sly, funny story about arriving for her first day of school); Bessie attended Columbia University where she studied dentistry and eventually set up a practice in Harlem. It was not always easy as they faced their share of indignities but they always rose above the strife and found ways to move on.
Mann packs a lot of the sisters’ homespun wisdom into the piece (“Life is short, and it’s up to you to make it sweet”) as well as sometimes biting humorous quips (“We never married. We never had husbands to worry us to death.”). All this material flows together but never allows the audience to get complacent. The wisdom and humor sit alongside jarring reality as when Bessie recounts the story of how she narrowly avoided a lynching.
As the play unfolds, it is the potent bond between Bessie and Sadie that drives the story. They temper each other: Bessie always the outspoken, daring sister sits in contrast to Sadie, who is circumspect, minds her manners and is the sweeter of the two. (As Bessie says, she knows Sadie will get to heaven but she’s not so sure about herself.)
Bessie passed away in 1995 at the age of 104 followed, in 1999, by Sadie who was 109. With their memoir and this play, these remarkable women left a unique legacy. Via this fine revival, they continue to welcome us into their remarkable life story.
Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.