Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Long, Storied Lives: Centenarian Sisters Speak Volumes in 'Having Our Say' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 10

Theatrically speaking, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years is a rather simple affair.

Two actresses--at Goodman, the terrific tandem of Marie Thomas and Ella Joyce--embody centenarian sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, respectively, as they regale the audience about their lives.

The sisters--who lived together for most of their lives, in their native Raleigh, NC, Harlem and Mount Vernon, NY--speak of their parents, siblings and numerous acquaintances, but while projected photos adorn Linda Buchanan's beautiful set, there are no other characters onstage.

So while calling it a play isn't inaccurate, Having Our Say is more like a spoken autobiography, times two.

I had first encountered this piece--written for the stage by Emily Mann, based on a New York Times article and then book by Amy Hill Hearth--in a 2014 production by Evanston's Fleetwood-Jourdain Theater.

Given the much smaller budget of FJT, that rendition was far more visually spartan, but the essence was largely similar, and acting also stellar. 

Even on a grander scale at Goodman--where it is clearly lovingly directed by Chuck Smith--Having Our Say is more an enjoyable piece than a riveting one, but it would be wrong to suggest that it lacks depth. 

Now passed--their stories were originally chronicled by Hearth in 1991--the Delany sisters were African-American, and their recollections include many examples of facing bigotry. 

Their father, Henry, who was born a slave in 1858, became an Episcopalian bishop, educator and Vice-Principal of St. Augustine's college in Raleigh, where the sisters--and 8 other siblings--were raised.

This was initially before Jim Crow laws were enacted, but such indignities as "whites only" restrooms, drinking fountains and lunch counters eventually prompted Sadie and Bessie to move to Harlem. 

There, after each earned educations atypical for African-American women at the time, the elder Sadie became a high school teacher and Bessie--two years younger--a dentist. 

Though each had dalliances with men, neither married nor had children. 

As shared in the play, Sadie's personality was more "sugar," while the more direct Bessie was "spice." 

Yet they clearly valued each other's company, and over decades observed both progress and the lack thereof, while intersecting with the likes of WEB DuBois, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and more. 

Much is made of the sisters' generosity to others in their family and the African-American community, and--countering prejudicial assumptions that ignore the socioeconomic truth about many middle-class blacks--at one point Bessie exhorts, "I never accepted a handout."

So clearly, there is much to learn, appreciate and consider in the sisters' remembrances and observations, covering most of the 20th century. 

And though some of the references in Mann's 1995 adaptation of Hearth's book (including "Dan Quayle") have become somewhat dated, the themes of the play--both familial and societal--remain largely resonant today. 

It's unlikely anyone who sees a good deal of theater will consider Having Our Say among the very best shows ever seen. 

But it's also unlikely that anyone who sees Having Our Say won't find themselves moved, delighted and enlightened. 

And for a biographical show 200+ years in the making, that's really is saying something. 

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