Sadie and Bessie Delany were one of a kind. Well, two of a kind. When we meet these two sisters, it’s 1993; Sadie is 103 years old, and Bessie is 101. (They both lived a few more years, with Sadie making it all the way to 109.) They’re happy to be alive, happy to be together, and happy to tell their life stories.
But things weren’t always so happy for Sadie and Bessie. And the sisters’ remarkable story of survival makes for a fascinating experience in Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
Emily Mann’s play, based on the sisters’ own book (co-written with Amy Hill Hearth), depicts the sisters entertaining an unseen visitor (and thus the audience) by telling about their lives. They grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, the daughters of former slaves who valued education. Those parents held positions of stature in the community – their father was an Episcopal Bishop, their mother a matron at a private school – and while they were poor, the ten Delany children were shielded from many of the hardships of life in the Jim Crow South.
It wasn’t until they moved to New York City to make careers for themselves – Sadie became the first black teacher of domestic science in the city’s high schools, while Bessie was one of the first black women to become a dentist in the city – that they began to experience the difficulties that so many others faced. While they try not to dwell on those difficulties, they can’t help but reflect on the indignities they had to suffer. “We loved our country,” says Bessie, “even if it didn’t always love us back.”
Having Our Say can get too cutesy at times. The sisters are just plain adorable, and their sharp-tongued senses of humor just make them seem even more so. (When they speculate about why they’ve lived so long, Bessie jokes, “I say it’s ’cause we never had husbands to worry us to death.”) But just when it lulls you into a sense of complacency, Having Our Say jolts you back to harsh reality – as when Bessie tells the vivid, harrowing story of how she narrowly avoided a lynching.
Mann has constructed Having Our Say so that material flows together thematically; nothing in the play feels forced. And the sisters’ language, mostly taken from the book, has a genuine, casual flavor. Still, the play can get repetitive at times, especially with its multiple passages about the deaths of family members. And while the sisters faced serious adversities, the play never presents a dramatic conflict that makes you feel much in their lives is at stake.
But the play’s flaws are easy to ignore, mainly because it’s so pleasant being in the sisters’ presence. Director Mary B. Robinson establishes a warm, soothing tone, with a pace that is slow enough for each line to resonate yet never feels sluggish. And every element of the production contributes to the convivial ambience. That includes Jason Simms’ elegant but not ostentatious set design for the sisters’ house, Dennis Parichy’s lighting, Cookie Jordan’s wigs, and Sarita Follows’ costumes (the orthopedic shoes and stockings are a nice touch). Christopher Ash designed projections that appear on the roof of the sisters’ house: still photos when the sisters are recounting their southern lives during act one, video when they move up north and enter the twentieth century.
Having Our Say is a showcase for two talented performers. It’s delightful to watch the interplay between its two stars and to see how they establish the sisters’ distinct personalities. Perri Gaffney, lean and wiry, plays Sadie with precise, carefully enunciated diction that suits her more reserved personality. Meanwhile, Cherene Snow plays the saucier, scrappier Bessie with a more conversational tone and a more stooped gait. There’s nothing showy in either performance; these are two people who appear comfortable onstage and comfortable with each other. And when they finish each others’ sentences – as they do repeatedly – it adds to the sense of informality that the production aims for.
There’s much to admire in Having Our Say, just as there was much to admire about Sadie and Bessie Delany. With their grace, dignity and resilience, they prove over and over again during Having Our Say that living over a century wasn’t their only notable achievement. You’ll wish they could hang around even longer.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including intermission.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years plays through February 19, 2017 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, performing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre – Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 985-0420, or purchase them online.