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Say it, sisters.

The curtain rises on a genteel middle-class suburban living room. One-hundred-and-three-year-old Sadie Delany (played by Gloria Foster) greets the audience, welcoming the visitors to her home as younger sister Bessie (Mary Alice), 101 years of age, trundles on with a tea tray. "How do you!" the little sister shouts out to the audience as if they're deaf. "Sit down. Sit down as long as you like." She pauses, smiling slyly. "We won't charge rent." And at that little joke, the centenarian siblings crack up laughing.

The laugh is written into Emily Mann's script for Having Our Say, which she adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Sarah (Sadie) Delany and Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, two daughters of a freed slave who have lived longer than the 20th century. New York Times reporter Amy Hill Hearth compiled the book from two years' worth of interviews, in which the Delanys regaled her with stories about the advent of Jim Crow laws in the South, the travails of getting graduate degrees at Columbia University in the 1920s, and the joys of being Americans living through the Harlem Renaissance.

Harrowing but hopeful

The current Broadway stage project began when producers Judith James and Camille Cosby won the performance rights to the book and decided to postpone their plans for a TV mini-series. Instead, they asked writer and director Emily Mann of Princeton, N.J.'s McCarter Theatre to adapt the work for the stage. Mann invited two of America's most powerful actresses - Gloria Foster and Mary Alice - to read extracts from Sadie and Bessie's book. In addition, Mann conducted her own interviews. After one visit to the Delanys' Mount Vernon, N.Y. home, she found the structural occasion for the play: When the audience comes to "visit," they find they are invited by Sadie and Bessie to stick around while the sisters prepare their Papa's favorite birthday meal. As Bessie says, "Some people grieve to remember, but we celebrate." And the sisters' festive perspective on life imbues the two-and-a-half-hour, three-act play with an infectious humor as they relate the often harrowing but always hopeful 100 years they've spent living as "negroes" in America.

Toward the middle of the first act of the two-woman show, Foster and Alice pass by each other on stage, catch one another's eyes and again burst into laughter. This time, however, their mirth originated neither from the book, nor from Mann's interviews with the Delanys, nor from the videotaped segments of the sisters the actresses watched as part of their research. The laughter began during the lengthy and sometimes tedious rehearsals in which the two performers would struggle with cues, trying to recall the next bit of narrative from their remarkable characters' lives while simultaneously remembering when "to stir the macaroni and cut the carrots." As Alice and Foster found themselves mute and lost at the same particular spot every run-through, they could do little else but laugh, and the release is retained in performance. Alice confesses, "I guess the audience wonders why we're laughing, but it's a wonderful moment. We found the sisterhood."

Indeed, more than either performance on its own, the emotional strength and power of Having Our Say lies in these actresses' fine recreation of the Delany siblings' life-long bond. That deep sense of relationship in evidence during the McCarter's sold-out run last February invariably brought audiences to their feet for standing ovations. (The collaborators were expecting the same reaction at the Booth Theatre on Broadway, where the show reopened in April.)

Sibling solidarity

Mann deliberately shaped the script and performances to try to recreate that sibling solidarity. She wrote overlapping lines and interweaving narratives - the sisters know each other well enough to finish each other's sentences. Perhaps the most courageous dramaturgical decision Mann made was to keep the story set in the present, resisting any urge to theatricalize episodes from the Delanys' youth. Instead, she trusted the actresses, the material and the power of storytelling. Of course, Mann's first play, Annulla: An Autobiography, based on an interview with a woman who lost her husband to the Holocaust, uses a similar conceit: an eccentric elderly widow invites the audience into her home for tea.

Mann admits the coincidence is "weird," but the choice works beautifully in Having Our Say. For Foster and Alice just don't let the Delanys have their "say": they make their stories' wit and wisdom sing. Foster's Sadie remains demure and polite, even while offhandedly offering her tips for longevity - yoga six times a week, and a clove of garlic and a teaspoon of cod liver oil every day. Alice's Bessie, on the other hand, proposes a spunkier solution: "We never had husbands to worry us to death."

Nothing epitomizes Bessie's grit, however, more than the tale of how she was almost lynched at a Southern train station when she told a man who made lewd comments to her to get lost. Sadie wishes she hadn't provoked the man, but Bessie asks simply, "How do you ignore some drunk, smelly white man treating you like trash?" Luckily, the train came in time to whisk her away from the increasingly unruly crowd of "rebby boys."

Although Sadie and Bessie have long retired from their respective professions as a high school home-economics teacher and a dentist, they still watch MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour to stay informed. And if anything, their opinions have become saltier. For instance, Bessie says of Clarence Thomas: "He's lying. Honey, I know a rascal when I see one!"

Alice admits she was always attracted to Bessie's character, even though at the first reading, she wasn't sure which role she'd end up with. (Mann had the luxury of compiling the script with their voices in mind.) Still, Alice wasn't sure what she was getting herself into when she was first approached about the project. "You know, before I went to Princeton to start working on it, and even after, I didn't envision what we finally have. Emily saw it. Somewhere in her mind's eye she saw it. But I didn't see it." Similarly, Foster felt as if she were rehearsing without a central character - she hadn't realized how badly she needed an audience until the first preview, when suddenly her performance gelled. She remembers finally feeling comfortable in the role of Sadie: "I was at home and they were my guests. It came together the moment I could feel them there."

For both actresses, however, meeting the Delanys in March, just before opening on Broadway, proved the most inspiring part of the project. Now in need of full-time home care after being recently hospitalized for the first time in their lives, Sadie is 105 and Bessie is 103. Nevertheless, the Delanys appeared thrilled to meet their stage presences. Alice gushed, "It was so special, I can't put it into words except that I still feel a glow inside me as a result of being with them - to have Bessie embrace me at the end, and have her take my face in her hands...."

Foster likewise felt an immediate connection to her real-life counterpart, but only after initial trepidation: "It was frightening before we met them, because we've created the work - we were very apprehensive going to look them in the face." All her fears were melted by the Delanys' warmth. "She referred to me as 'Sadie Two,'" Foster recalls fondly. "And then when I left, she said, 'Now you're Sadie number one.' Isn't that something? It was just so dear."

Not the stuff to sell tabloids

Foster especially appreciates being able to share such remarkable lives with contemporary audiences, many of whom may never have met black women of such accomplishment. "I've had the good fortune in my lifetime to have met many Sadies and Bessies. I hope audiences leave recognizing the value of family and whatever religion one has. As Sadie says, 'Religious faith is the backbone of the Delany family.' And they've had both good and bad experiences with people, but they never let it make them bitter and angry; it made them more loving and caring."

The real lesson Foster gleans from the Delanys' exemplary lives is the importance of values that would make even Dan Quayle proud (although he comes up for a good ribbing during the show): "Family and union and respect and decency and cleanliness and honesty."

Foster's favorite line of Sadie's is, "I never let prejudice stand in my way." And as the actress aptly notes, "This isn't the stuff to sell tabloids - but it is about Americans, and consequently about America."
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Title Annotation:Stages; 'Having Our Say' portrays life of African-American centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delaney
Author:Istel, John
Publication:American Theatre
Date:May 1, 1995
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