Having Our Say

Having Our Say (Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $ 37 top) Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in association with Camille O. Cosby and Judith Rutherford James present a play in three acts by Emily Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Walter Dallas. Set, Edward E. Haynes Jr.; costumes, Dana R. Woods; lighting, D Martyn; original music, Baikida Carroll; projections, Marc Rosenthal; casting, Stanley Soble; production stage manager, James T. McDermott; stage manager, Lisa J. Snodgrass. Opened Sept. 19, 1996; reviewed Sept. 18; runs through Oct. 27. Running time: 2 hours, 35 min. Cast: Frances Foster (Sadie), Lynne Thigpen (Bessie). Opening its 30th anniversary season on an appropriately nostalgic note , the Mark Taper Forum has a charmer in "Having Our Say," a two-character play whose two characters are a pair of "colored" women it's the term they'd prefer looking back from the comfort of their parlor at a century of experience. Adapting the autobiography of Bessie and Sadie Delany with a minimum of theatrical fuss, playwright Emily Mann has a trio of expert collaborators in director Walter Dallas and actresses Frances Foster and Lynne Thigpen, all of whom do honor to the play by stressing its simplicity. Sadie (Foster), age 103, and Bessie (Thigpen), a mere 101, begin with an introduction to the various limbs of the family tree. They address the audience throughout as welcome guests in their sitting room in Mount Vernon, N.Y., eventually inviting the crowd to stay for a lovingly prepared meal. Raised in North Carolina in a family that boasted eight other children born to the first black bishop in the Episcopal church himself born a slave the Delany sisters came of age in the Jim Crow South. The contrasting characters of these two "maiden ladies" becomes quickly apparent, though they've lived together for 75 years and finish each other's sentences without missing a beat. Sadie is the molasses to Bessie's vinegar, and the memories of each have been thus distilled: Sadie recalls the happiest hours of their childhood before Jim Crow laws codified the racism that was already a fact of everyday life, and tells with affection the story of their white grandfather, who was devoted to their black grandmother, though he could neither marry her nor share her house. Bessie's most vivid memories they are among the evening's most powerful moments are of the scars of racism: the unspeakable anguish she felt as a child, weeping in her bedroom as the cruelties of discrimination first came home to her, while her mother sat with her in silent sympathy, and the cold courage she mustered when she rebuffed an insult from a white man at a train station, then waited with unflinching pride to see whether the train or a lynch mob would arrive first. Although their memories of an upbringing marked by a strong family bond that was a much-needed refuge from the harshness of growing up black in the South have much appeal, it is when the sisters speak of their move to Harlem that the extraordinary nature of their lives becomes apparent. In 1918, at age 29, Sadie enrolled at Columbia University. She went on to become the first African-American teacher of domestic science in New York's high schools (and the utter naturalness of Foster's performance is such that the actress herself gets a round of applause for Sadie's achievement). Bessie becomes a dentist she's the only black woman in her Columbia Dental School class and an activist and friend of W.E.B. DuBois. Sadie and her mother meet Eleanor Roosevelt through one of their brothers, a lawyer and adviser to Marian Anderson. If the play becomes slightly slack as the sisters move from being participants in the sweep of the century's social history to observers of it the Delanys were in their 70s when the Civil Rights movement was at its height there is something nicely natural in that, too. The appeal of the evening, in any case, is in the telling of the tales, not the incidents related, and Foster and Thigpen are marvelous storytellers. In the less showy role of the "sweet" sister, Foster is superb there is not an even vaguely artificial moment in her performance, and that's the key to the evening's success. As the saucier Bessie, Thigpen is moving in moments when Bessie shakes with rage at a memory of injustice, and makes the most of her many zingers there's a priceless Dan Quayle joke. But we are at times too aware that Bessie is on stage, not in her Mount Vernon home. Dallas' directorial hand may appear absent, but it is certainly to be credited for the evening's unerringly natural rhythm, and the easy interaction between the actresses, which indeed has the warmth of loving siblings. Just enough movement is provided by the sisters' easy journeys from parlor to dining room to kitchen, all expertly evoked in Edward E. Haynes Jr.'s perfectly detailed set. And Marc Rosenthal's projections provide some of the signposts for the sisters' larger journey, across 100 years of personal history that shed some vivid if never too harsh light on what remains perhaps the country's most profound moral failure, racism and its enduring legacy. Charles Isherwood

Having Our Say (Mark Taper Forum; 760 seats; $ 37 top) Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in association with Camille O. Cosby and Judith Rutherford James present a play in three acts by Emily Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Walter Dallas. Set, Edward E. Haynes Jr.; costumes, Dana R. Woods; lighting, D Martyn; original music, Baikida Carroll; projections, Marc Rosenthal; casting, Stanley Soble; production stage manager, James T. McDermott; stage manager, Lisa J. Snodgrass. Opened Sept. 19, 1996; reviewed Sept. 18; runs through Oct. 27. Running time: 2 hours, 35 min. Cast: Frances Foster (Sadie), Lynne Thigpen (Bessie). Opening its 30th anniversary season on an appropriately nostalgic note , the Mark Taper Forum has a charmer in “Having Our Say,” a two-character play whose two characters are a pair of “colored” women it’s the term they’d prefer looking back from the comfort of their parlor at a century of experience. Adapting the autobiography of Bessie and Sadie Delany with a minimum of theatrical fuss, playwright Emily Mann has a trio of expert collaborators in director Walter Dallas and actresses Frances Foster and Lynne Thigpen, all of whom do honor to the play by stressing its simplicity. Sadie (Foster), age 103, and Bessie (Thigpen), a mere 101, begin with an introduction to the various limbs of the family tree. They address the audience throughout as welcome guests in their sitting room in Mount Vernon, N.Y., eventually inviting the crowd to stay for a lovingly prepared meal. Raised in North Carolina in a family that boasted eight other children born to the first black bishop in the Episcopal church himself born a slave the Delany sisters came of age in the Jim Crow South. The contrasting characters of these two “maiden ladies” becomes quickly apparent, though they’ve lived together for 75 years and finish each other’s sentences without missing a beat. Sadie is the molasses to Bessie’s vinegar, and the memories of each have been thus distilled: Sadie recalls the happiest hours of their childhood before Jim Crow laws codified the racism that was already a fact of everyday life, and tells with affection the story of their white grandfather, who was devoted to their black grandmother, though he could neither marry her nor share her house. Bessie’s most vivid memories they are among the evening’s most powerful moments are of the scars of racism: the unspeakable anguish she felt as a child, weeping in her bedroom as the cruelties of discrimination first came home to her, while her mother sat with her in silent sympathy, and the cold courage she mustered when she rebuffed an insult from a white man at a train station, then waited with unflinching pride to see whether the train or a lynch mob would arrive first. Although their memories of an upbringing marked by a strong family bond that was a much-needed refuge from the harshness of growing up black in the South have much appeal, it is when the sisters speak of their move to Harlem that the extraordinary nature of their lives becomes apparent. In 1918, at age 29, Sadie enrolled at Columbia University. She went on to become the first African-American teacher of domestic science in New York’s high schools (and the utter naturalness of Foster’s performance is such that the actress herself gets a round of applause for Sadie’s achievement). Bessie becomes a dentist she’s the only black woman in her Columbia Dental School class and an activist and friend of W.E.B. DuBois. Sadie and her mother meet Eleanor Roosevelt through one of their brothers, a lawyer and adviser to Marian Anderson. If the play becomes slightly slack as the sisters move from being participants in the sweep of the century’s social history to observers of it the Delanys were in their 70s when the Civil Rights movement was at its height there is something nicely natural in that, too. The appeal of the evening, in any case, is in the telling of the tales, not the incidents related, and Foster and Thigpen are marvelous storytellers. In the less showy role of the “sweet” sister, Foster is superb there is not an even vaguely artificial moment in her performance, and that’s the key to the evening’s success. As the saucier Bessie, Thigpen is moving in moments when Bessie shakes with rage at a memory of injustice, and makes the most of her many zingers there’s a priceless Dan Quayle joke. But we are at times too aware that Bessie is on stage, not in her Mount Vernon home. Dallas’ directorial hand may appear absent, but it is certainly to be credited for the evening’s unerringly natural rhythm, and the easy interaction between the actresses, which indeed has the warmth of loving siblings. Just enough movement is provided by the sisters’ easy journeys from parlor to dining room to kitchen, all expertly evoked in Edward E. Haynes Jr.’s perfectly detailed set. And Marc Rosenthal’s projections provide some of the signposts for the sisters’ larger journey, across 100 years of personal history that shed some vivid if never too harsh light on what remains perhaps the country’s most profound moral failure, racism and its enduring legacy. Charles Isherwood

Having Our Say

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