'Having Our Say' is based on the book of that name by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany, which was published two years ago, when the sisters were 102 and 104 respectively.
These women were born in the years before Jim Crow laws were enacted in the South. They moved to New York during World War I. Sarah (Sadie) was the first black to teach domestic science in a white New York public school. Her sister, Bessie, became a dentist.
Because their father had been an Episcopal bishop in North Carolina, their friends included Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They saw the civil-rights movement not as an event taking place "out there," but something in which they were intimately involved.
Theirs is, of course, a stirring saga made more stirring by the fact that both women are still alive. In that sense, "Having Our Say" is an interim report. If the play has a healthy run, which it certainly deserves, perhaps updates can be added.
It might be more accurate to describe "Having Our Say" as a "spoken book," since Emily Mann, who did the adaptation, has not really dramatized it. She simply has the two sisters recount the events of their remarkable lives as they prepare a celebratory dinner.
The only conflict the play offers is the friction implicit in the differing attitudes of the sisters. Sadie is the more stoic, Bessie the more opinionated. Their arguments enliven what might otherwise seem a history lesson.
Gloria Foster gives Sadie tremendous dignity and inner strength. Mary Alice is absolutely captivating as the irrepressible Bessie.
At one point, Bessie declares, "I am the kind of Negro most whites don't know about." One of the important things about "Having Our Say" is that it reminds us of the long tradition of achievement in black America. The fashionable treatment of black history has been as a chronicle of pathology. For many that has been true. But for many others, the Delaney Sisters among them, the struggle against incalculable odds has ended in triumph.
It must be a wonderful things to live to 100 - as long as you get there with a full deck and all your marbles. Marinated in time, aged with seasons, you must sink in history, a past long dead still living in your present.
But this is only part of the charm and joy, not to mention the sheer interest, of a beautifully modulated theaterpiece which opened at the Booth Theater last night, "Having Our Say," which is a visit with the Delany Sisters of Mount Vernon, N.Y.
The rest of the charm and joy is the Delany sisters themselves, who in the theatrical embodiment provided them by the ineffable Gloria Foster as Miss Sadie Delany and the equally ineffable Mary Alice as Dr. Bessie Delany, are two of the most delightful old ladies you're ever going to meet.
So who are the Delanys, and how come they are "having their say"?
They are two African-American professional women living in telephone-less retirement - Sadie, a former high school teacher, is 106, and Bessie, a former dentist, is a mere 104.
I have called them African-Americans, according to current custom, but the Delanys who think of themselves simply as Americans, prefer older usages, such as Negro or even colored, and Bessie, the more daring of the two, is uninhibited enough to call herself ironically "a naughty little darkey," in a way that makes my conventionalistic blood run cold.
There is a certain culture gap here caused by time and tide - and this is another aspect of their interest. This is black-oral history of a fascinating period observed from a fascinating viewpoint; the perspective of middle class black privilege, and its natural adversarial role against the white power structure.
The evening owes its origins to a knock on the Delanys' door by a white reporter, Amy Hill Hearth, who was on assignment from the New York Times to write about these nowadays reclusive centenarians.
She was welcomed, the Delaneys chattered away like birds on a tree and Hearth not only got a story, but - for they proved born story-tellers; Africans would call them "griots" - the germ of a best-selling book, "Having Our Say" delivered by the Delany sisters themselves with Hearth who edited and shaped the enthralling narrative.
For what a story it is! From a family history including a father who was born in slavery and went on to become elected the first black Episcopalian bishop, to their own memories such as the post-Reconstruction South - they grew up in North Carolina - or the Golden Age of Harlem, where they knew the likes of Paul Robeson, the anecdotes spin on and on.
This is oral history at its most immediate, and sometimes most painful, as they recount their struggles against white racism, in which they finally decide that living long is the best revenge. They have little bitterness - only an ironic sense of rightness, and an unshakeable belief in their God's world.
The play is beautifully mounted - perfect sets by Thomas Lynch - and directed by Emily Mann, who is also described, a little cheekily, as the "playwright," although the words all seem to originate from the book.
And the performers are exquisite - Foster is Sadie the "molasses" sister and Alice is the younger "vinegary" Bessie, and both are so totally convincing that you imagine their Delany lives continuing undisturbed by the fall of the curtain.
Do see "Having Our Say" - it is a window on a world now lost, full of love, a little pain and a wondrous deal of hope.
The most provocative and entertaining family play to reach Broadway in a long time has a cast of two, a single set and a time span of something less than two and a half hours. Yet it contains dozens of characters, represents six generations and embraces nearly 200 years of black American life, which is also white American life.
It's Emily Mann's adaptation of "Having Our Say," the best-selling memoir by Sarah (Sadie) L. Delany and her sister Annie Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, written with Amy Hill Hearth. The play, which opened last night at the Booth Theater, stars two enchanting actresses: Gloria Foster, who plays Sadie at the age of 103, and Mary Alice, as Bessie at 101.
Like the book, the form of "Having Our Say" is disarmingly plain: Sadie and Bessie welcome the audience as a visitor to their comfortable old house in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Sadie is the gracious one, as if being the elder requires that she be circumspect and observe the manners. Bessie tries to follow her example, but always fails.
She finishes Sadie's sentences. She can't resist either withering sarcasm or blunt truth, which often amuses her as much as it does Sadie. As Sadie observes, having lived so long together, they seem fused. They're a single personality. Sadie is the face they present to the world; Bessie is the heart and the feelings they share.
Compared to most black Americans, the Delany sisters (who still live in Mount Vernon) are privileged. The story they tell the audience is atypical but significant. With their eight brothers and sisters, they were raised on the campus of St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., where their father, a minister, was a teacher and their mother an administrator. Later their father, born into slavery, went on to become the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church.
The family never had much money, but everyone prospered. Sadie, who received her master's degree from Columbia, was the first black teacher of domestic science in New York City high schools; Bessie, a graduate of the Columbia Dental School, became a dentist, one of two black women to be so accredited in New York. The sisters made waves.
They have also lived long enough to experience a large slice of American social history, but not so long that their vision has become blurred. "Having Our Say" is a grand narrative that at one minute reaches back to the beginning of the 19th century and, not long afterward, leaps forward to the 1990's. Their life has been fabulous. It might also cheer the heart of anyone who believes there's no reason for blacks not to get ahead in this country if they just work hard and persevere. Although Bessie's reaction to that one is terse: "Are you kidding?"
They're comfortably middle class, but they aren't smug. They know of lynchings and, first-hand, threats of lynching. In one of the evening's most moving sections, they recall when the Jim Crow laws were first enforced in Raleigh, their memories extending to a pre-Jim Crow era when using a park fountain was not cause for racial confrontation.
Their staunchly Christian values reveal a sense of caste and class, which in turn reflects the 19th-century white world. Yet they're secure in their own identities. Bessie refuses to call herself anything but "Negro" or "colored." She's sure she's not an African-American. She's never been to Africa. She also says with impatience, "I'm not black; I'm brown," which leads to a consideration of the hierarchy of shade. "I'm darker than she is," says Bessie of Sadie, "and the darker you are, the harder it is."
The sisters were taught to avoid racial incidents when they were growing up. Yet they were largely shielded from them by life on the campus of all-black St. Augustine's.
After they moved into the world outside, the sisters' responses matched their characters. "Sweet Sadie," as her father called her, developed a thick skin and a way of getting what she wanted by playing dumb. Bessie tried to fight, as when she organized a demonstration to protest the showing of "The Birth of a Nation" at the Capitol Theater in New York in 1925. The only problem: she arrived late, just in time to see the police taking away her friends.
Ms. Mann, who also directed "Having Our Say," has shaped the material so that the tales flow easily one into another until, by the end of the performance, you feel as if the stage has been packed with people. There are vivid portraits of forebears, including their white maternal grandfather, "the meanest-looking man in Pittsylvania County, Va." Because of the laws, he couldn't marry their black grandmother, but lived with her openly, protected her, loved her and left his money and property to their surviving daughter.
There are comical characters; unnamed "rebby boys," white men who might want to make love, rape or murder, depending on their mood; white people who displayed unexpected kindness, but more often disinterest; slave owners (good and bad) known second hand, even such celebrities as Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt. Illuminating all is the singular bond between Sadie and Bessie.
The characters and the stories are not mere reminiscence. They fit together to create a panorama of particular times and places, of racism, sexism and indomitable will. In the center: two remarkable women who carved out careers where none existed, and who lived lives of the mind in a middle-class black America that is often dismissed today as irrelevant.
The physical production is more elaborate than it initially seems. Thomas Lynch's single set is framed by a succession of projected still montages, designed by Wendall K. Harrington and Sage Marie Carter. Sometimes the photos are taken from the Delany family albums; at other times, they're chosen to evoke specific places and eras. They don't upstage; they complement.
"Having Our Say" is not a conventional, well-made play, though it has the effect of rich theater. It's performed by Miss Foster and Miss Alice with a collaborative spirit and skill equaled this season only by the performances of Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in "Vita and Virginia."
The Booth stage is alive. When the two actresses get going, the performance takes on the excitement of a revival meeting. Miss Foster presides. Her Sadie is an impressive figure even when she walks, which is no longer easy. Miss Alice's Bessie, whose ankles are matchstick-thin, works the house. She says she never felt that she was inferior: "I'm just as good as anyone else. That's the way I was brought up." She pauses, then adds with malicious delight, "I'll tell you the truth. I think I'm better!"
At that point in the preview performance I attended, the audience was ready to give testimony.
Since her playwriting debut with the remarkable "Still Life" in 1980, Emily Mann has created a niche for herself in what might be called theater of testimony, a group of works (including "Execution of Justice," 1985 Broadway failure) in which the words and actions of real characters are given dramatic form. Though "Having Our Say" is a natural inclusion in such a body of work, it's the gentlest and the most sentimental in Mann's more typically politicized canon. It's also the likeliest to reach a wide audience.
Add performances of uncommon power by two accomplished actresses, Gloria Foster and Mary Alice, and a subject that embraces the century, and you have the elements of a memorable evening of playgoing. And that, "Having Our Say" certainly is, even if the evening starts out on the soft and mushy side and never fully jells.
Producers Camille Cosby and Judith James wisely beefed up their production budget with plenty of cash for outreach and education, and that should buy the play time to build the audience it deserves.
Adapted by Mann from the bestselling memoir of the same name, "Having Our Say" is a history of the remarkable lives of two sisters Delaney: Sadie (Foster) , born in 1889, and Bessie (Mary Alice), born two years later.
The daughters of a minister born in slavery and a brilliant woman of mixed ancestry, the story of the Delany sisters begins in Reconstruction and progresses through the rise of Jim Crow, two world wars, the triumphs of black culture during the Harlem Renaissance, the civil and women's rights movements, up to the present.
During that time, Sadie earns a master's degree in education at Columbia University, later becoming a pioneering high school teacher in New York City school system, and Bessie graduates from Columbia's dental school, establishing a practice in the heart of Harlem society.
Through it all, they are nurtured by the enduring love of parents and siblings: Along with the other things it is, "Having Our Say" is the ultimate family values Broadway show.
Without in any way diminishing the immense appeal of the Delaney sisters' story, however, "Having Our Say" is also a tour de force for these two great actresses. As Sadie, the gentler, sunnier character, quick to smile and forgive, Foster rarely lets an inviting grin leave her mouth or a sparkle leave her eye.
Bessie is the tougher sister, less likely to turn the other cheek than march right into the center of conflict. She finishes Sadie's sentences, impatient with the Southern pacing that betrays their Raleigh roots. As a girl, the only thing that could bring Bessie to tears was the enforced racism under Jim Crow laws.
"Most people learned not to mess with me from day one," Bessie says. "If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar; if she is sugar, then I am spice." Mary Alice takes Bessie at her word, imbuing her with a bristling spunkiness and a voice that provides a bracing mezzo counterpoint to Foster's steady continuo. They are wonderful.
"Having Our Say" is at its best when the sisters' lives are intertwined with larger circumstances. The play is most vivid during the Harlem period, roughly the '20s through the '40s.
The play itself is more problematic. The set revolves from parlor and dining room to kitchen to allow for projections on surrounding screens that allow us to see everything from family members growing up to scenes from the various periods , which are telescoped for dramatic purposes. Wendall Harrington and Sage Marie Carter's projections are muddied by the floral design on the screens.
Thomas Lynch's set is cozy if uninspired; Allen Lee Hughes' lighting is better than that; and Judy Dearing's costumes are perfect for these two women.
If there is a parallel this season to "Having Our Say," it is "Vita and Virginia," in which Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins magnificently brought to life so-so material. Foster and Alice are their American cousins, and their triumph is every bit as great.