Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Sister Act 200 Years in the Making: Strong Performances, Impressive Lives Give 'Having Our Say' a Powerful Voice, or Two -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
a play by Emily Mann
directed by Tim Rhoze
Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre
at Noyes Cultural Arts Center
Through June 29

Except for three years in L.A. in the early '90s, I have lived in the Chicago area my entire life (including 3 years of college in DeKalb, about 50 miles west).

While this past brutal winter likely challenged the resolve of even the most hardcore Chicagoans, and changes in weather systems and Arctic ice levels may foretell future months-long misery for us Midwesterners, I can still honestly say there is nowhere I would rather live than Chicago (with the caveat that I actually live in Skokie, a nearby suburb).

While this first and foremost has to do with family and friends, and with local favorites from cherished sports teams to Italian beef sandwiches, Vienna Beef hot dogs and deep dish pizza, high on the list of "reasons my life is better here than it likely would be anywhere else" is the Chicago theater scene.

Yes, New York and London are my favorite tourist cities because of the top-tier theater I can see in abundance on Broadway and in the West End. And from touring Broadway shows to local troupes to high school, college and community theater productions, I likely could see something worthwhile almost anywhere in the U.S. and most of the world.

But what distinguishes Chicago is the depth and expanse of the area's theatrical community, which I don't believe New York, London, Toronto or anywhere else quite matches.

I have subscriptions to Broadway in Chicago and the Goodman Theatre, get to many productions at Steppenwolf and Northlight (the latter in Skokie), and typically see something in a given year at Marriott Theater Lincolnshire, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and/or Light Opera Works.

But I also have seen plays and musicals by dozens of other professional (and community) theater companies--most commonly at TimeLine, Court, Next, Redtwist and Profiles--and know that there are far more quality troupes than I've yet encountered.

So far in 2014, I have seen exemplary work in first-time explorations of Pride Films & Plays, Aston Rep and Theo Ubique, and on Saturday night added Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre to that list.

The Evanston-based troupe, which focuses on works highlighting the African-American experience, is celebrating 35 years of producing plays and programming workshops.

I have no excuse for never having noted any of their past productions--seemingly all staged during the summer, currently at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in a space utilized throughout the rest of the year by Next Theatre--but was alerted to their current season by my sister Allison.

She had noticed and recalled that Tim Rhoze, who did great work within the cast of Northlight's fine production of The Whipping Man--seen in early 2013--was, per the program, the Artistic Director of Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre.

Knowing that I am always happy to widen my artistic and theatrical explorations, upon hearing about it she clued me in to FJT's 2014 Summer Season, commencing with Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years (and continuing with Gee's Bend from July 12-27 and Why Not Me? A Sammy Davis Jr. Story in August; details here.)

Despite it being based on a 1993 book that was on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 105 weeks, I had never heard of Emily Mann's play, which ran on Broadway in 1995. (The sisters' story was initially chronicled in a NY Times article and turned into a CBS TV movie in 1999.)

But based on the work done by Rhoze--who directed the play and designed its attractive set--and his two-woman cast of Joslyn Jones and Jacqueline Williams as 103-year-old Sadie Delany and her 101-year-old sister Bessie, I certainly intend to get to Fleetwood-Jourdain's upcoming productions.

With just a 6-show run making the efforts of all involved all the more impressive, the 90-minute play consists entirely of the two sisters speaking to each other and, much more so, to the audience (and/or an imagined interviewer).

Believe me, I've been to enough theater to know that anything, even the most unusual, daring or convoluted premises, can be great given quality writing and acting, but the Delany sisters were far more engaging that I may have expected, even if they were embodied by fine actresses themselves well shy of the century mark.

And that's largely the point of Mann's piece; people so regularly defy expectations that it renders preconceived notions to be:

A) Asinine
B) Insulting
C) Proof of One's Own Ignorance
D) Racist
E) All of the Above

Even based on my relatively brief exposure, Sadie's and Bessie's biographies are impressive enough that I'll leave them largely for you to discover, whether at one of next weekend's closing performances, through the book or via other means.

But as the play essentially consists of the sisters--longtime Harlem residents, but originally from North Carolina--running through the highlights and lowlights of their lives, I'll share that they were 2 of 10 children of a former slave and his 3/4-white but defined as black wife.

Their father was a bishop and educator who stressed the importance of education and became a leader in the Episcopal Church. Sadie, the older of the two sisters who seemingly dwelled together for their entire lives, would become a longtime teacher with a Master's Degree while Bessie was a successful dentist who was one of the first women of color to attend Columbia University.

Their recollections describe their devotion ("All the things that made us strong came from the church"), their experience with abject racism, particularly from "Rebbie boys" (i.e. Rebels) and after Jim Crow laws segregated buses, water fountains, rest rooms, etc., their romantic dalliances though neither ever married and their interactions with leaders, activists & artists such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson and more.

As a chronological remembrance, Having Our Say doesn't offer much in the way of suspense or surprise, even for those who arrived uninitiated. Also lacking any acute tension or conflict--though Jones and Williams do a great job of making you feel the atrocities the sisters had experienced--it is not so much a wonderful play as a nice, very well-presented articulation of astonishing lives.

And in attending with my mom, sister and a close family friend among a mixed-race audience, it was hard not to appreciate the Delany sisters' foremost themes of family, pride, purpose (their father had imparted, "Your mission in life is to help somebody") and perseverance.

For even at the combined age of 204--they would each live several more years--Sadie and Bessie Delany seemingly derived their greatest pleasure from three things: each other's company, defying expectations (with Bessie pointedly stating "I never took a handout") and, through all the ups and downs, dancing.

If you have tickets to Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years for next Saturday, June 28, or had it noted on your calendar, please be advised that curtain time is now 8:00pm, not 7:00pm. On the 21st, we arrived for a scheduled 7:00pm start only to learn it would be delayed an hour. Graciously, however, the company and a group of guests provided pre- and post-show refreshments, and blues guitarist David "Chainsaw" Dupont performed during the delay.

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