Emmy Award-winning actress Olivia Cole and Broadway star Brenda Pressley keep the stories of Sarah Louse “Sadie” Delany and “Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany alive, preserving over 100 years of their history in Emily Mann’s stage adaptation “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” in its run at the Hartford Stage.
Cole plays the sweet, mild-mannered Sadie, 103, and Pressley portrays the bolder and spunky firecracker of a woman, Sadie’s younger sister, Bessie, 101. The sisters invite us into their New York home, talking to us and sharing pictures of their family as they prepare their father’s favorite dinner, an annual way they honor his memory on his birthday.
They tell their tales of persevering through Jim Crow South and racial discrimination and becoming successful women through their education, careers and later years living in New York. Both go to Columbia and become rather successful — Sadie as a teacher and Bessie as a dentist. They even reference interactions with major historical figures like Booker T. Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt.
You may recognize Cole for her Emmy Award-winning role as Mathilda in 1977 miniseries “Roots.”
She also starred alongside Pressley in Oprah Winfrey’s TV film “Brewster Place.” Both have Broadway credits, such as “Dreamgirls” and “Cats” for Pressley.
Cole plays a very convincing 103 year old in her voice and slowed physicality. When Pressley walks across the room, she hunches her posture and staggers cautiously like an older woman, but her faster and more talking speed makes her appear younger than her character is supposed to be. Granted, neither of these actresses are actually 100, so playing mentally with it, 100-year-old women is not easy! But otherwise Pressley actually serves as a good contrast to Sadie because she exudes youth and a fighting spirit versus Sadie who goes with the flow and sometimes rebels passively by playing innocent.
For instance, Sadie talks about how she was expected to sit at the back of a shoe store during a Jim Crow South time. Instead of just going there when the storeowner implies it but doesn’t say it, she keeps asking where he wants her to sit like she doesn’t know what he means to the point where he tells her to sit wherever. So, of course she sits near the front store window.
Even though a three-act two-person play with no action requires a lot of your attention to stay interested, I was captivated with every word that came out of Sadie’s and Bessie’s mouths. Cole and Pressley are charming as our hosts and have a way of storytelling that keeps you wanting to hear more, partially because they are so likable and entertaining. Their chemistry is strong and very sisterly. They play off of each other well with their reactions and you can tell when one doesn’t agree with what the other sister says by a mere expression or look. It’s like the audience is in on it, creating comical moments.
Sadie and Bessie directly address the audience like we are physically in their home — a set that includes a living room with a lot of pictures, a kitchen where the actresses actually chop and mix ingredients like they are actually cooking, and a dining room at the forefront where they put food on the table but never sit, representing perhaps an archaic room symbolizing history and tradition. Each room is on a different level and you can even see a staircase and hallway leading deeper into the house. It feels like a real home and you are really inside sitting and talking with the Delany sisters. I wonder if it was written and staged that way to represent New York Times journalist Amy Hill Hearth spending time with them and interviewing them about their stories.
As the sisters reference pictures they are seemingly showing us personally while they talk, photographs are projected on an upper wall level so we can actually see what they are looking it, drawing us further into their story. A nice contrast of modern technology telling the old through the new.
The play, which Mann adapted from the book by the Delany sisters and Hearth, keeps with the language consistent with the experiences the sisters lived through as they faced prejudice because of the color of their skin. You could hear the gasps of a predominantly older, white audience as they heard the “n” word, examples of racism and the sisters’ perspectives about white folks. It was very powerful and as someone who has never felt the weight of remaining traces of racism, I could still feel the pangs of the challenges the sisters face because of the poignant stories they told and sympathize with them even though I can’t claim to know how they felt never having experienced it myself.
Bessie talks about the use of the term “black” to describe her skin color and she said she never understood that reference because her skin is not actually that hue. Black is black, she says. African-American is another descriptor you hear in attempt to be politically correct and she said she doesn’t identify with it either because she’s not from Africa and thinks of herself as American. She explains how she prefers the term negro, though admits it’s not a term people feel comfortable with today. Women of color is another possibility. Again, as a white woman it was intriguing to me because I often wonder what is the best verbiage to avoid offending someone while being accurate. Or maybe it isn’t necessary to describe people’s race at all in stories, but in doing so you in a way neglect heritage and history in our melting pot of a country. It’s hard to say, but Bessie says it and much more in her own perspective without holding back.
A poignant story she tells is nearly being lynched because a drunken white man leered at her at the train station in the “colored” waiting room because she put her hair down and she talked back to defend herself. She said she was ready to die in that moment, but that she was saved when the train came and the crowd forming dispersed.
It marks perhaps one of the most tense interactions between the sisters in the show, provoking the otherwise calm and smiling Sadie to almost yell at Bessie for not being more cautious because those emotions about the thought of possibly having lost her sister that day still run deep.
Sadie tells another story about when they were children and went to get a drink of water from the water fountain in the Jim Crow South. They notice signs with arrows at pointing at one of the fountains — one reads “white” and they other says “colored.” Even as children they get the hint, though they don’t understand how the fountains are any different. She laughs as she says Bessie snuck some water from the other fountain in rebellion because she wanted to taste the “white water.”
Another interesting story about their lineage touching on the social judgements about bloodline and bi-racial relationships, the Delany sisters describe their mother, born in Virginia, who looks white, but is proud of her heritage as an “issue-free Negro,” meaning her mother wasn’t a slave. She embraced that part of her perhaps the most. Their mother, the valedictorian of St. Augustine’s School, marries their father, Henry Beard Delany, born in Georgia and a house slave, despite societal prejudice at the time and people who also judged a white person who had a parent who was a slave. It’s relevant to the recent controversy about former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal facing criticism for looking white but saying she identifies as black.
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. After all, the story is what’s in the pages, which are in the inside of a book, or a person.
And you’ll want to hear every word of the Delany sisters stories. Bessie died at 104 and Sadie lived to be 109. Wow, to be over 100 years old!
And speaking of 100 years old, one of the audience members, a regular Hartford Stage subscriber, was celebrating her 100th birthday!
Some of the older people in the audience were grumbling about not being able to hear the words well, but headsets are available to amplify the sound for the hard of hearing.
There were also some students in the audience, so this play would also be very educational for school audiences.
The original production of “Having Our Say” earned three Tony nominations in 1995. Jade King Carroll, who got to meet the Delany sisters and whose father wrote the music for the original and Broadway productions, directs this version.
In collaboration with Long Wharf Theatre, “Having Our Say” runs through April 24. More information on tickets is available at www.hartfordstage.org. Tickets run from $25 to $85.