“Having Our Say,” incisively adapted and staged by Emily Mann from the bestselling volume of reminiscences by the Delany sisters, is a warming theatrical event, heightened by exquisite tandem acting.
The remarkable odyssey of “Sweet Sadie” (Gloria Foster) and “Queen Bessie” (Mary Alice), who have survived a century and then some, has become a two-character play which at first impression is little more than front-porch wisdom, rocking-chair philosophy and lap-slapping humor. It’s like turning the pages of a dusty old family photo album. But as the evening takes shape, it becomes infinitely more rewarding.
Sadie and Bessie Delany were the second and third children of 10, born to a slave who became an Episcopal bishop, and a mixed-race mother. Sadie became the first black woman to teach domestic science in the New York City school system, and Bessie began a dental practice in Harlem in 1925. Their story is a compelling one, beginning with a detailed examination of the family tree, accented by daguerreotype-like visuals that draw the audience into a picturesque , modest life of family unity in the long-ago rural South.
Act two comes face to face with the bitter era of Jim Crow, brutal lynchings and segregation. The new epoch begins for a youthful, innocent Bessie at a local soda fountain, and for a defiant Sadie in a shoe store. The final act is a reflective backward glance at the modest and comforting life the sisters made for themselves. They never married, noting “husbands would have worried us to death,” but boast of witnessing Halley’s comet not once, but twice. There is praise for Jimmy Carter and Martin Luther King Jr., and scorn for Clarence Thomas, not to mention a tasteless swipe at Dan Quayle.
The sinking of the Titanic, two world wars and the civil rights movement are all touched upon. What gives the play such encompassing force is not just the narrative of two proud “colored maiden ladies,” but the enchanting performances by Foster and Alice.
Foster’s Sadie, all “molasses and sugar,” is a performance of elegance and honesty. An aborted courtship, the death of her beloved mother and a confrontation with hostile youths are related with stunning sensitivity and grit. Alice’s Bessie, the “vinegar and spice” of the pair, provides feisty contrast. Stubborn, outspoken and quick to anger, she laces the action with down-home humor and anecdotal charm.
Thomas Lynch’s simple set focuses upon a sitting room that revolves into a dining area and kitchen, framed by a panoramic screen that provides a sprawling canvas for visual studies of family, the rural South and a bustling Harlem in the ’30s. An unobtrusive and subtly plaintive musical motif leads the scene changes.
“Having Our Say” is a tad lengthy, but the afterglow is rewarding.