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Emily Mann’s absorbing chat with the sisters Delanyabout the century they’ve spent as self-described “maiden ladies” in a world far less civilized than theyisn’t really a play, but most viewers won’t hold that against it. Like the rest of the evenings that make up the Mann canon, Having Our Say is based on such compelling real-life material and surrounded by such historic conflict that it can afford to be frankly nondramatic.
Also, on occasion, frankly cornball. The lights haven’t been up for five minutes before the sisters come right out and invite us to stay for tea. “We asked the Lord to send us someone new,” they explain, adding a capper they might as well have lifted from Arsenic and Old Lace: “Everyone we know is dead.”
Still, they’ve established themselves by that point as such good company that no one’s going to refuse the invitation. Ever since 1991, when a New York Times article by Amy Hill Hearth first turned these remarkable 100-year-old siblings into celebrities, Sadie and Bessie Delany have been making new friends at a furious clipfirst through two volumes of best-selling reminiscences, and then by proxy (impersonated by actresses several decades their junior) from the stage.
It’s easy to see why. The Delany sisters are born storytellers andhaving pretty much seen it all (or at least more of it than most mortals)they have plenty of stories to tell. The daughters of a minister who was born into slavery and a well-educated woman of mixed ancestry, they can recall meeting Booker T. Washington in Reconstruction-era North Carolina, seeing Halley’s Comet (during both its first and second appearances this century), and experiencing a sudden shift in social status after the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 that “separate but equal” public accommodations were legal. Bessie remembers sneaking a sip of “whites only” water the very first day the signs went up in their neighborhood park. “Tasted the same,” she notes tartly.
As middle-class children, they were lucky enough to be educated in parochial schools and to be able to move to New York when Jim Crow laws in the Carolinas made living in the South untenable. Once in Manhattan, they went through two world wars, a depression, and the glories of the Harlem Renaissance, seeming always to be at the center of things. Sadie earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia University and, by avoiding an in-person interview until her job actually started, became the first African-American woman to teach domestic science in New York City schools. Bessie went to Columbia’s Dental College and became so renowned as New York’s second licensed African-American dentist that letters addressed simply to “Dr. Bessie, New York” somehow found their way to her. The very idea of handouts horrifies these women, who never took anything they didn’t earn.
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On stage, as in their books, the two have distinctly complementary personalities. Sadie (Micki Grant) is the sweet one, with sunny, twinkling eyes and a smile that never leaves her lips for long. Bessie (Lizan Mitchell) is feistier, tougher, and more prone to getting riled. “If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar,” she announces accurately. “If she’s sugar, then I’m spice.” Bessie finishes about half of Sadie’s sentences, as if impatient with the Southern drawl that still inflects her sister’s speech. And she’s unfailingly spunky, whether recounting her fury over almost getting lynched or offering a one-sentence dismissal of Dan Quayle that earns the evening’s biggest guffaw. Both actresses are luminous, and deserve the standing ovation they get every night.
Mann has staged the production efficiently, on a smallish center-stage revolve that allows viewers to follow the centenarians from parlor to dining room to kitchen in the cozy Mount Vernon, N.Y., home Thomas Lynch has designed for them. Projections on the screens surrounding this revolve let us see family members and streetscapes, as well as the real Sadie and Bessie in various periods. This doesn’t add much, but it doesn’t hurt, either. In general, Mann has kept the production as straightforward as its protagonists.
Mann’s earlier plays have taken a similar approach. Borrowing a phrase from South African director Barney Simon, she accurately describes her work as “theater of testimony.” Her Execution of Justice (produced memorably at Arena in 1985 but a failure later that same year on Broadway) takes the form of a courtroom drama, as it documents the 1978 trial of Dan White, the city supervisor who murdered San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and gay activist Harvey Milk. At Arena, the events of the trialfrom the defense lawyer’s gay-baiting to the ludicrous “Twinkie defense”were sent tumbling after one another with the frenetic rhythm of a TV newscast. Many of the words being spoken came directly from the trial transcript. At one point, the real Harvey Milk’s voice was heard on tape.
Mann’s searing, accusatory Still Life (produced in the Old Vat Room a few years later) placed a violent Vietnam veteran, his terrified wife, and his comparatively sanguine lover behind a table, as if they were at a congressional hearing. The testimony they offered, much of it taken directly from transcripts, concerned the emotional fallout of the soldier’s homecoming.
To my knowledge, neither Greensboro (A Requiem), which explores the 1979 Ku Klux Klan rally at which 13 people were shot (five to death), nor Annulla, An Autobiography, Mann’s first play, adapted from an interview she did with a friend’s Holocaust-survivor aunt, has been produced in this city. But the elegiacal qualifying phrases in their titles suggest that they, too, have the quality of testimonials. (Mann’s dramatic work has, in fact, been collected in a single volume titled Testimonies: Five Plays.)
As with the other Mann shows I’ve seen, Having Our Say’s links to the world outside the theater are underlined by program notes. The Kennedy Center’s stagebill contains a centurylong timeline that highlights significant developments in the lives of the protagonists and the society they’ve watched change. It notes sadly that Bessie died last year at the age of 104, and concludes by announcing a February ’97 publishing date for Sadie’s third book, On My Own at 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie.
It also notes that after nine months on Broadway, the show began a tour that will ultimately visit 58 cities, from Muncie to Tuscaloosa to Los Angeles. The least politically abrasive of Mann’s plays, it has, perhaps naturally, become the most popular. Still, as the sisters knew, humor can be just as effective as vitriol in getting a message across. It’s safe to say that in every city the show visits, Bessie’s Quayle crack”if that boy were colored he’d be washing dishes”will bring down the house.CP