Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through June 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Emily Mann’s “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” offers a window onto a century’s worth of history from the perspective of two remarkable women plus an entertaining and edifying lesson about what’s important in life.
Much time has passed since Amy Hill Hearth wrote the 1991 New York Times article about Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891-1995) and Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany (1889-1999) that sparked the 1993 book co-authored by the trio and the 1995 play that ran on Broadway for 317 performances, but the Goodman’s revival suggests that—for better and for worse—the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mann’s play is set in the Mt. Vernon home that the “maiden ladies” (not “old maids,” Bessie insists) bought in 1957. Relying on a conceit common for oral histories, they welcome the audience into their parlor for tea, and once Linda Buchanan’s detailed turntable set rotates to reveal the kitchen, for the special birthday dinner they’re preparing in honor of their deceased father. Dozens of gilded picture frames hang overheard, and as they recount the story of their lives while dressing a ham with pineapple and chopping vegetables, some of the frames fill with Mike Tutaj’s projections of family and historic photos.
Their parents loom as fundamental influences, instilling basic values like the importance of education and self-reliance. The sisters, who lived together their whole lives and preferred to be referred to as “colored” or “Negro” rather than “black” or “African American,” were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School in Raleigh, NC. Their father, the Rev. Henry B. Delany, a slave until age six, was vice-principal of the school and became the first African American Episcopal bishop elected in the United States. Their mother, Nanny Logan, the daughter of a free African American woman and a white Virginia farmer, was a teacher and administrator at the school. The sisters had eight other siblings.
While their admiration and love for their maternal grandfather helped shape their opinions of white people, the enactment of Jim Crow laws around 1900 profoundly changed their lives. Before that, they could pretty much do what they wanted, but then all of a sudden they had to go to the back of the bus, couldn’t enjoy a limeade at their favorite drug store, and even were prohibited from drinking water from the “whites only” side of a spring, though Bessie took a dipper full anyway. They also were subject to the bigotry of the “Rebbie” boys and threat of lynching.
Eventually, they followed one of their brothers to New York and continued their education. Sadie became the first African American allowed to teach domestic science (i.e. home economics) at the high school level in the New York City public school system, while Bessie got her dental degree from Columbia University and was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. She was well-known in Harlem, where she never raised her rates and the sisters lived for years. They knew many prominent Harlem Renaissance figures and were activists for both civil rights and women’s suffrage. Before moving to Mt. Vernon, they bought a house in the Bronx, and when their mother came to live with them there, Bessie retired to take care of her.
The main drama in the two hours of storytelling comes from the contrasting personalities of the sisters, thanks to vivid and believable performances under the savvy direction of Chuck Smith. Ella Joyce’s Bessie is the feisty one, always eager to speak her mind and never willing to back down. Marie Thomas’ Sadie is more rule-abiding and accommodating, or as Bessie puts it, more likely to get into heaven.
At the same time, both tell tales of using their wits to circumvent a racist system. Realizing that the authorities won’t let her teach high school if they know she’s a woman of color, Sadie skips an appointment and just shows up at the school, making it impossible for them to fire her. After a teacher rejects one of Bessie’s papers, a white friend submits it as her own and gets a passing grade.
Delightful and engaging as the Delanys are, however, they play’s structure has an inherent drawback or two. Because the same themes are repeated over and over, and everything is told rather than shown, the evening risks becoming tiresome. In addition, the sisters lived through historic events without quite being at the center of things, so I found myself wanting more. Still, the show is generally enjoyable and occasionally illuminating.