4th Wall Theatre in Bloomfield, NJ will be celebrating Black History Month with the amazing two person play HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS' FIRST 100 YEARS adapted by Emily Mann from the book of oral history by Sarah "Sadie" L. Delany and A. Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. BroadwayWorld talked to the creative team and actresses behind the show about the project leading up to opening night on February 21st: Artistic Director Kate Swan, Director Jeremy Gold-Kronenberg, and actresses Mimi Francis and Gwen Ricks- Spencer.
BWW: 4th Wall is known for doing lesser known works. What made you choose this show for this season?
Kate: We are always looking for wonderful stories from diverse voices and points-of-view. Having Our Say definitely fits the bill well.
BWW: Jeremy, what drew you to this piece?
Jeremy: I think the script is quite deceptive. There's a simplicity in the fact that this is a storytelling piece. There is very little dramatic action, yet the piece has enormous dramatic impact. I found that incredibly exciting because it lets us focus on language and human connection and avoids any unnecessary bells and whistles. I also found it to be an incredibly compelling life story.
BWW: Mimi, how did you go about preparing to play these 'real sisters' in your production?
Mimi: I read the book Having Our Say and thought about my own family. The relationships I have with my sisters and brother, and how my own family had stressed education. All five of us graduated from college, earned graduate degrees and have all served in the helping professions. You cannot "play a character" such as this without acknowledging that she was a real person; you can't help but bring a part of your life into it as well. I also was keenly aware of elderly people everywhere I went - paying attention to their mannerisms, way of speaking, just their overall aura.
BWW: Gwen, how does one play people that are 103 and 101? How do you mentally and physically prepare for that?
Gwen: It's definitely a challenge, but like any other role, you do research and work at it. We're lucky because there is video of the real Delany sisters to look at, and in my personal life, I have my mother, who is over 90, and several women in the church I attend who are also nonagenarians to reference. Mentally, they are very sharp, which is why the Delanys are such interesting women to listen to. The physical requirements were a bit more difficult. In creating a woman who is 101, I have to constantly think about how I do every movement, how long it's going to take me to do something, and to build that into the world we inhabit on the stage.
BWW: Can you tell us how this play deals with prejudice and discrimination?
Mimi: This play presents a brief history of it as this family experienced it. They knew that other people had it worse than they did, but they did not turn their backs. They felt the sting of prejudice at an early age and the consistency of discrimination. However this was not used as an excuse not to strive, move forward, and achieve. This type of response is something I learned at an early age as well. Living in America, while great strides have been made, there is always room for improvement in how people treat each other and the impact of perceptions (real or not) that affect how our diverse society moves forward.
BWW: What was it like creating the amazing bond these women must have when just meeting your co-star in the course of rehearsals?
Gwen: The bond is incredible between the sisters so getting it right at the start was critical. Mimi and I hit it off immediately, and we have a lot in common so that was an easy hurdle to cross. In addition, we just sat and talked and told each other stories about our lives and our families to build that bond. Also, while working thru the script, Jeremy has encouraged us to share our thoughts and feeling about the incidents that are part of the sisters' story. Like any relationship, it keeps building each time we're together.
BWW: Jeremy, one would assume there is little movement in a piece due to the ages of the characters. Is that a challenge for you as a director?
Jeremy: It is an enormous challenge. It does place a major emphasis on communicating and engaging the audience in these stories and making a very personal connection with them. It requires great trust in the material and trust in how we present it that hopefully people will feel affected by the story. I think Emily Mann was quite brilliant in structuring the play. The physical activity throughout the play - these women doing everyday, ritualized tasks - it offers a glimpse into genuine human behavior, and I think it aids in the storytelling process. There's something about that multi-tasking dual focus that makes the exchange of language even more engaging and purposeful.
BWW: I am struck by the point in the play where the sisters are talking about an African-American president 'someday' and here we are in 2013 and it has happened. What important changes have you witnessed since the Delaney sisters wrote this book?
Mimi: The historic election and re-election of an African-American president is now a part of the American fabric. There have been numerous changes since the Delany sisters wrote this book, as African-Americans have continued to contribute to this country's development in technology, communication, health care, etc. The legacy of the Delany sisters and many families like them in the African-American community is that we must not settle for less than our best, we must assist those in our community, and we must be proud to be who we are, culturally and as Americans, for we are all contributors to our country. These are lessons that should be heeded by all people. I am grateful and honored to be portraying Miss Sadie Delany and to bring her "say" to our audiences.
BWW: When creating characters, we often pull parts of ourselves into the story. As the play is told in memory as stories, do you think of your own family's history when portraying your character?
Gwen: Absolutely. My family was very similar to the Delanys in that education was always considered extremely important by both my parents, and my mother migrated north and went to college when it was not the norm for most African-American women and became a school teacher, like Sadie Delany. I see so many similarities. I must say that working on this piece and pulling on my own family's history to relate to the circumstances described, has really served as a reminder of the sacrifices that my mother, like the Delanys', made to achieve their piece of the American dream.
BWW: While you are presenting this for Black History Month, the stories are universal and speak to everyone. Can you tell us how it has spoken directly to (or affected) you by doing it?
Gwen: Like most people, I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on my family history, but working on this has affected me personally. It has given me a renewed sense of pride in the accomplishments of my family and of all African-Americans. I've been reminded of family stories that in many ways mirror the stories shared in Having Our Say. And when I think about the obstacles and tough times we've had to overcome -- and that I received a great education, have never wanted for anything, have a stable family life -- I realize that I stand on the shoulders of those that came before me. It's very humbling.
BWW: Jeremy, I firmly believe we should be able to tell any story we want no matter how race, gender, etc. But as a white male, were there any challenges for you to direct two incredibly gifted actresses in this piece?
Jeremy: I wholeheartedly agree. There are certainly experiences that I cannot personally understand. I find corollaries in my life and have faced similar discriminations and challenges, but I certainly recognize that I will never know the African-American Experience. I put trust in our actors to have an open dialogue and exchange of ideas. I share my experiences with them, they share their experiences with me and we respect our individual stories. Ultimately, like any production set in any time period or set of circumstances, I am telling a story about specific events. In all of my work I am telling human stories that I hope will reflect our history and our status quo, provoke thought, entertain, and lead the audience on a journey in which they can see themselves, even in a piece that is drastically different from their everyday lives. It is my goal to reach every audience in a deeply personal way and make the work speak to them in a unique and highly visceral manner.
BWW: What do you believe to be the main theme of these sisters' lives and what they wanted to convey in sharing their story (first as a book, then as a TV movie and play)?
Jeremy: I think that the story illustrates that even the most ordinary people; can have extraordinary achievements and impact. Sadie and Bessie Delany encountered discrimination at every end, and never lost sight of bettering themselves and bettering the world. They teach me, and hopefully teach others, that we can live our lives with grace and generosity even if that isn't always the way we are treated by others. The Delany sisters didn't lead perfect lives, but they led lives of great purpose and integrity. Ultimately, I think Having Our Say is a celebration of America's history, the power of the human spirit and the ability for each of us to live our best possible life.
BWW: Kate, as Jeremy speaks of this being a story that celebrates the power of the human spirit, what do you feel audiences can take away from this play?
Kate: These women truly paved the way for the America we live in today. Meeting them, hearing their stories and struggles, and watching them celebrate their heritage makes for a wonderful evening at the theatre.
Having Our Say is presented February 21, 22, 23 at 8pm and Feb 23 at 2pm at the Westminster Arts Center on the campus of Bloomfield College. Tickets: Adults $22, Seniors $20, Students $18, Major Discounts available for groups of 15 or more (call 973-566-9255 or email firstname.lastname@example.org) Box Office: (973) 748-9000 ext. 1279 or visit www.4thwalltheatre.org/having-our-say-information
Photo Credit: Mimi Frances and Gwen Ricks-Spencer Photos by Tom Schopper