Having Their ‘Say’

NAMES: Camille Cosby and Judith James

DESCRIPTION: Producers of “Having Their Say” on Broadway.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Let others turn “Off.”

On Broadway is where they’re determined to be.

Judy James calls it a “righteous challenge,” not exactly the phrase that comes to mind when discussing play producing on Broadway. “You’re out of your mind” is more like it. But James and her partner, Camille Cosby, are on a $1.25 million mission, and they’re not about to be deterred by long odds.

When “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” hit the bestseller lists and stayed… and stayed, James and Cosby were convinced that the century-spanning story of two daughters of a former slave had a life beyond the printed page. They have been friends since the ’60s, introduced by actress Gloria Foster, a guest on “I, Spy” – the series that launched Camille’s husband into superstardom.

James recalls: “There was great glee when one of us said, ‘Have you read…’ and the other said, ‘”Having Our Say.”‘ It doesn’t automatically look like a play or film; it looks a bit like a miniseries.”

Nevertheless, Cosby and James commissioned director and playwright Emily Mann to fashion a script for Foster and Mary Alice – two of the country’s most acclaimed African-American actresses. The result opened last week to strong notices across the board at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., where Mann is artistic director (see review, page 185).

But the big step comes March 16, when previews begin at the Booth Theater prior to an April 6 opening. The producers have raised $1.25 million – enough to include a healthy marketing budget and enough of a reserve fund to let the play build word of mouth. They also enlisted support from Chrysler Corp., which invested in the show and is underwriting discount tickets for students.

That’s a big piece of change, especially at a time when more practiced hands are giving up on Broadway, with its high costs and higher risks. Not Cosby and James.

“An Off Broadway play about the black experience? No, thank you,” says James, who with her partner Richard Dreyfuss is co-executive producer of Oscar-nominated “Quiz Show.” “This is a statement. And doing it at the Booth – right there at the corner of Shubert Alley – that’s a statement. We knew we were going to get a lot of naysaying – it’s an oral history, it’s about two old ladies. But there are 1.3 million copies of the book out there. I don’t know when a book buyer turns into a ticket buyer, but we’re going to find out.”

Cosby adds that they don’t feel they’re on a quixotic mission.

“I would like to see producers and writers who are more inclusive. I think that is a real problem for television and film as well. I become bored because what I see is so ‘Commercial.'” “Having Our Say,” she hopes, will be commercial with a small ‘c.’ They know they have their work cut out for them.

“We’ve been talking straight talk a lot,” James says, “but we are very optimistic.”

“And we’re tenacious,” adds Cosby. “Put that down, too.”