Spending two hours in the company of the delightful Delany sisters of Mount Vernon, New York, is an eye-opening, rewarding experience. As the title of the play that opened on Wednesday evening, February 24 at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre indicates, the outspoken sisters are indeed “Having Our Say,” and as portrayed by two exquisite actresses, the tall stalwart Olivia Cole and the diminutive firecracker Brenda Pressly, one could listen to them all night. After two hours, with two brief intermissions, the Delanys, each just over 100 years old when we meet them, are just getting started.
Playwright Emily Mann, the artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, based the play on the best-selling book of the same name, which was written by Sarah L. Delany, Elizabeth Delany and Amy Hill Hearth, which grew out of Hearth’s initial New York Times interview with the pair. Mann set the play in 1993, when Sarah, known as Sadie, was 103 and Elizabeth, who went by Bessie, was 101. The Long Wharf effort is being co-produced with Hartford Stage, where it will transfer following the New Haven engagement, under the direction of Jade King Carroll.
The play, which is subtitled, “The Delany Sisters’ First Hundred Years,” finds the sisters recounting their life history with the audience, as visitors to their Mount Vernon house. What rivets the audience to their tale is how it connects to so much of African-American history. Their father was a former slave and the ten Delany children were born in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the late nineteenth century as Jim Crow laws spread across the south. Their lives will take them to New York during the Harlem Renaissance and will see them active in the Civil Rights movement and in suburban integration.
The Delany children were all high achievers, inspired and motivated by their father, who served as Vice Principal of St. Augustine’s School, a school for black children, and their mother, who served as Matron. Their father was also an ordained Methodist minister who later became the first black Bishop in the Episcopal Church. He encouraged all of his children to pursue higher education, and Sadie went on to get a degree in education and Bessie became a dentist. The sisters followed most of their siblings to Harlem in the early 1920’s where they established successful careers and became familiar figures in their community. After their father’s passing, their mother would also relocated to New York, where she would join her children on their adventures in the city.
Mann’s work tries to present the vast history of the Delany sisters in as realistic and unprepossessing way as possible, avoiding any semblance of this being some sort of historical lecture. Instead, the sisters share their story in the most homespun way possible, quite conversationally, occasionally contradicting one another or jumping in with a specific detail that the other sister may have missed. Although their story unfolds essentially chronologically, it does jump around in time at certain points, just as anyone’s story would.
“Having Our Way” successfully captures the spirit of the Delany’s, exploring their spirituality as well as their positions as maiden women in their community. The sisters are quite adamant about not liking certain descriptors, such as being called “old maids” or “African-Americans,” a term gaining popularity in the late 80’s and 90’s. Dr. Bessie says she rather prefers the term “colored” over “black” since it captures the variety of skin tones within their culture.
The evening is aided significantly by the masterful performances of its two stars. Cole as Sadie warmly welcomes us as guests into their well-kept home in Mount Vernon, where they have moved in the later years of their lives, and directs the scope of their reminiscences, with Pressly’s Dr. Bessie chiming in to add a more detailed memory or to elaborate on an aspect of Sadie’s recall. Both actresses ably convey the impact of aging on the two women’s bodies, with restricted movements or limited carrying capacity. As in real life, however, both Cole and Pressly demonstrate how even at the start of their second hundred years, age never diminished the sisters’ energy or minds. As we sit spellbound by their shared history, the two Delany’s celebrate the anniversary of their late father’s birthday by preparing his favorite meal of chicken and gravy, macaroni and cheese and a multitude of fresh vegetables. Continuing to recite their story, the pair meticulously wash, chop, slice and mix the various ingredients for the meal, set an elegant table, and watch over the stove and oven. It’s a delicious bit of stagecraft that helps to humanize and endear the two characters to the audience, underpinning the reality of their lives.
Even though the sisters recount many of the hardships they encountered as African-Americans growing up in our country, they for the most part retain a positive attitude about their lives and their experiences, repeating several times how blessed they feel about their good fortune. With the distance of some 70 years or so, they can now look good naturedly back on their treatment by the rude and leering “rebby boys,” the southern white boys who would often harass them, dangerously so, or on new Jim Crow laws impacting their access to picnic areas and lakes. Pressly proudly shares Bessie’s struggles to find a dentistry school and graduate despite a teacher who seemed to have it out for her, becoming the go-to dentist in Harlem who never increased her prices during her career. Cole regales with Sadie’s strategy to assure herself a position in an all-white school in New York City by confidently showing up on the first day of classes with her assignment in hand, not giving the faculty or administration a chance to complain to the central office.
Cole and Pressly imbue their performances with a great deal of emotion, as they confess how the death of a young cousin jolted them into the reality of their own mortality, how separation from the tight-knit family early in their careers caused them great consternation, and how the aging of members of their own generation brought new concerns. They also talk of the great joys in their lives, such as seeing Paul Robeson perform while they on a trip to London, as Robeson invited them backstage upon learning they were in the audience. They recount one of the highlights of their mother’s life, as the sisters arranged for her to meet one of her idols, Eleanor Roosevelt, who their mother admired ever since the former First Lady arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Truly the most valuable part of “Having Our Say” is being allowed into the two women’s lives and hearing their own personal story about being black in America. Parts of their tale smashes some stereotypes that many people have and others remind us how many African-Americans found ways to establish successful lives and careers despite a country that would frequently work against them. There is a genuine hominess to the life they allow us to glimpse, even as we learn that they have never had a telephone at home (at the dentist’s office, yes), because they felt if someone needed to talk to them, they could do it in person.
That feeling of warmth and welcome is enhance by Alexis Distler’s set design, which depicts in delightful detail the kitchen, dining table and sitting room of the Mount Vernon residence, well-maintained as we would expect these proud sisters to do, but nonetheless grounded in ‘60’s and ‘70’s style. We also catch glimpses of the stairway to their bedrooms from which they retrieve old pictures as well as a front parlor which wraps around to their front door, off to the side of the Long Wharf stage. Distler is also responsible for the photos and videos projected on an overhang above the set, which contain old family photographs, historical photos, and films covering some of the major historic events of the period.
Karen Perry’s costume designs outfit the sisters nicely and believably, while Nicole Pearce’s lighting follows the women between rooms and helps pinpoint our attention. Karin Graybash’s sound design allows a radio to play Sadie’s favorite classical music and showcases Baikida Carroll’s lovely affirming original musical score which itself was nominated for a Tony Award during the play’s Broadway run a number of years back. It is rare—and quite positive—to encounter an all-woman design team backing a female director and playwright with a cast composed of two women. The care and quality of all aspects of the production are readily apparent every step of the way.
I expect seeing this play will prompt many viewers to seek out the sisters’ original book to learn more details about their lives, many of which are just hinted at in the play. Theirs is indeed a remarkable story that is less of a history lesson than an intimate look into the lives and struggles of these two amazing women, brought to life if even for less than two hours, in this sweet and loving production.
“Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Year” runs at the Long Wharf Theatre through March 13. For information and tickets, contact the theater’s Box Office at 203.787.4282 or visit the theater’s website at www.longwharf.org.