By Karen Isaacs
I wished I liked Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years now at Long Wharf through March 13 and later at Hartford Stage from March 31 to April 24 more than I did. After all it is oral history of two extraordinary women. The Delaney sisters, Sadie and Bessie, lived over 100 years; they saw three wars (and assorted other conflicts), the rise and fall of Jim Crow laws, the emancipation of women, and too many inventions to mention.
Yet, the play, Having Our Say seems to be content with being only an oral history with the two sisters telling rather than showing us their lives. In addition, these women’s quirks and personalities can be either charming or “too cute for words” depending on your taste.
It is the emphasis on the telling rather than showing about the enormous changes that occurred during their lifetimes, the people they met and the ground-breaking things they did, that led me to look at my watch during the two hour performance which features both a five minute and a ten minute intermission. There is an emphasis on their large family who often become indistinguishable. You forget who is who mostly because you are told so little about them.
Having Our Say was a best-selling book in 1993, by the sisters and Amy Hill Hearth. The book was turned into a play in 1995 by Emily Mann and later a made-for-television movie in 1997.
The two sisters were born in 1889 (Sarah L. or Sadie) and 1891 (A. Elizabeth or Bessie), in the reconstruction era North Carolina. Their family had an interesting history; their mother could have passed for white, a grandmother had “married” a white man, and though born a slave, their father had been taught to read and had become a preacher. Education was a priority in their large family. During their early years, the Jim Crow laws of strict segregation in all public places was instituted.
The sisters – who never married – migrated to Harlem in the 1920s joining other family members. Sadie was a school teacher of home economics who became one of the first (if not the first) African-American to teach in a white NYC high school. Bessie was the only African-American woman in her dentistry school class at Columbia and only the second African-American woman dentist in licensed in New York.
They lived in Harlem and knew everyone – from W.E.B. DuBois to members of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz performers, and all the movers and shakers.
So why does this story seem to focus on the domestic rather than really talking about the people they knew, their reactions to the many changes they saw, the ideas that developed? How did they feel about DuBois’ ideology? What was their reaction to the various civil rights protests that occurred during their lifetimes? Instead of these things which would fascinating hear, we hear much too much about their father’s traditional birthday meal, and other minor details. Even the fact that Bessie retired early to keep house because apparently her practice wasn’t making money is just a few sentences.
In reality Sadie and Bessie are blander versions of Felix and Oscar of The Odd Couple, though both are neat. Sadie is more Felix, all sweetness and light with a girlish laughter that is used much too much. Bessie has more vinegar in her.
Alexis Distler has created the Delaney sisters’ home in Mount Vernon. It has the look of everyone’s grandmother’s house – a little cluttered and definitely old fashioned. Distler has also provided the projections that show us various members of the family.
So what about the performances? Olivia Cole plays Sadie while Brenda Pressley plays Bessie.
Cole may be familiar to longtime Long Wharf audiences; I recall seeing her in multiple productions in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She is a fine actress and a mature actress. She endows Sadie with a girlish charm and much too much laughter that seems almost like a nervous tic. Pressely, who is younger, plays Bessie as bent over. Was she in real life? But even if she were, it does not make Pressley seem older, just uncomfortable.
But both actresses capture the “well brought up Southern maiden aunts” stereotype well.
Director Jade King Carroll has infused the production with warmth. Anyone who knows an elderly “maiden lady” will recognize these characters. I’m not sure if it was her idea for some of the mannerisms that are so overdone. I hope not, but as director, she is too blame for not reining them in.
Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters’ First 100 Years can be enjoyable if you don’t expect a lot of thought provoking details or drama. Sometimes it is good just to marvel at how two people have survived and accomplished so much. By the way, Bessie died in 1995 at 104 while Sadie lived to 109, dying in 1999.