By Larry Laneer
February 20, 2020
The playwright and director Emily Mann adapted the 1993 memoir Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth into a theatrical version. This is not a new play; I don’t know why it has taken so long for it to be done around here. But thanks to Michael Baron, Lyric Theatre’s producing artistic director, and the company, we now have the pleasure of spending a couple of hours, including intermission, with two of the most interesting people you’ll meet anywhere, anytime.
The book adapts smoothly for the stage because it’s told in the sisters’ own voices. Two actors break the fourth wall and tell their stories directly to the audience. And what stories! Their father was born into slavery in 1858. But he was unusually fortunate to be taught to read by his owners. After emancipation, he went to college—something rare at the time—where he met the sisters’ mother, who was almost born into slavery. Thus, the sisters knew from childhood the importance of education and lifelong learning.
The Delanys reared 10 children in Raleigh, North Carolina, all of whom went on to achieve notable personal success in professions or business. The last two survivors and the subjects of this play were Sarah Louise (1889-1999), known as Sadie, and Annie Elizabeth (1891-1995), known as Bessie. Sadie earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia and had a career teaching in the New York City public schools. Bessie studied dentistry at Columbia and was known in her Harlem practice as “Dr. Bessie.” How the sisters went to New York City from North Carolina is told in the play.
At the time of the memoir and the stage adaptation, Sadie is 103 and Bessie is 101. Lyric has engaged two highly experienced and capable actors to play them. Terry Burrell (Bessie) and Julia Lema (Sadie), who are decades younger than the women they play, capture the sisters’ vivid personalities with remarkable authenticity, while staying in character as centenarians. The sisters are sassy, pert, no-nonsense, opinionated, well-informed on events of the day, and feisty as 16-year-olds. Burrell and Lema have sibling chemistry and show the distinct characteristics of each sister. Plus, during much of the play, they go through the stage business of preparing a meal while continuing the dialog.
Now at the Plaza and guided by the sure hand of director Monique Midgette, the production creates the welcoming feeling of a visit to the sisters’ tidy, comfortable home in a New York City suburb. The scenic design by Debra Kim Sivigny teems with details of the sisters’ lives. Jeffrey Meek’s costumes are so naturally appropriate you may not notice them, and I mean that as a high compliment.
The Delany sisters’ story is extraordinary almost beyond belief. They were witnesses to practically the entire 20th century, sustained by wry senses of humor and religious faith. They saw Halley’s comet twice. They remember America before Jim Crow laws. They rushed down to register when women got the right to vote in 1920. They met Eleanor Roosevelt. Sadie and her mother saw Paul Robeson play Othello in London and were invited backstage to meet the actor. They have choice comments about former Vice President Dan Quayle and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
In Sadie and Bessie, you have two people who some might say were born with no advantages. But as their stories reveal, they were born with the greatest advantages: parents who valued learning and caring for their fellow human beings. The Delany sisters never had great monetary wealth, but they made the most of what they had. Sadie and Bessie make some of today’s billionaires look like paupers.
|Having Our Say by Emily Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and
A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays,
2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through March 8
1725 NW 16th St.