BWW Review: HAVING OUR SAY at Hartford Stage Company
HAVING OUR SAY is the theatrical adaptation by Emily Mann of the joint memoir of the same title published in 1993 by Dr. Bessie Delany and Miss Sadie Delany, who were then both over 100 years old. The Delany sisters were two of ten siblings raised in North Carolina. Their father had been born into slavery, but taught to read. He met their mother (who could have passed as white but never did) when both attended St. Augustine University, a historically black college founded by Episcopalians to educate freed slaves. This institution of higher learning in Raleigh (which still exists) became the family home, as both parents stayed on to work there, bringing up their kids on a shoestring, and insisting on dignity, decorum, education, and musical training.
The evening gains heft because the two actors are depicting two real people, elderly ladies, retired from distinguished careers: Miss Sadie was a high school teacher, and Dr. Bessie was the first black woman dentist in New York. They invite the audience to help them celebrate their father's birthday, though he is long gone. Their take on our national history unrolls through direct address. Act 1 recounts the history of the family. Act 2 takes up the Jim Crow era, with sorrowful recounting of lynchings and other atrocities, all managed while the two ladies perform the elaborate choreography involved in preparing their father's favorite meal: baked ham, a stuffed and roasted chicken, macaroni and cheese, ambrosia and more. Act 3 is more celebratory, about their final years, in a house they bought in Mount Vernon, north of Harlem, where they had lived during their professional lives.
The evening is a delight. Key to making it work is the contrast between the two sisters' personalities, and the loving acceptance they lavish on each other. Olivia Cole, as the older sister, Miss Sadie, is incandescent: she throws wide her arms and beams generosity of spirit at the audience. Brenda Pressley, as the younger sister, Dr. Bessie, is a more fractious type. It's quite a few minutes in before she favors us with a smile, and that happens first when she speaks of her saintly sister. Before the evening is out, though, she shares both her legitimate anger and her great cackle of a laugh--and she'll sing us a heartfelt Amazing Grace a cappella, with great command.
The connection between the two actors is a beautiful thing, doubtless aided by a friendship that began in 1990 when they were both cast in BREWSTER'S PLACE on TV, Oprah's short-lived show based on the Gloria Naylor novel. This stage production is a joint enterprise with Long Wharf Theater in New Haven and transferred to Hartford after a solid run there, so the actors have had time to craft their interaction. Cole speaks with great musicality, trilling up and down the scale, against Pressley's more controlled contralto. They pick up their cues as if finishing each other's thoughts, making it altogether believable that they are telling us stories they've honed over years of sharing reminiscences.
Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak at Hartford Stage is committed to providing work for veteran women actors, knowing how rare such roles are. Pressley and Cole are consummate professionals (one in her 60s, and one in her 70s) who prove the value of that choice.
The directing duties here have been handed over to a younger generation. Jade King Carroll is in her 30s, but was present in the rehearsals for the first production of this show 21 years ago, since her father composed the original music for the show. She told a group of Hartford Stage supporters that she'd decided by age 10 she wanted to be a director. Her father gave her what access he could. She met the actual Delany sisters back when the show was young, and has trained steadily since in the theater.
An expert in this particular show, she's crafted a warm, swiftly paced, precise production that works because of the skilled delivery of language. It would almost work as a radio play, though that would mean we miss the detailed period set of kitchen, sitting area, dining room, and front foyer designed by Alexis Distler, who also designed projections so that we can see, enlarged, the photographs that the sisters use to prompt their stories. The theater will bring Jade King Carroll back next season to direct August Wilson's THE PIANO LESSON.
It's to the theater's credit that they coupled this show with an outreach project in the community, inviting teenage women of color to interview elder African-American women from the Greater Hartford area. Terrific portraits of these pairings, along with cogent quotations, are on display in the upper lobby, and videotaped excerpts are available on line.
This show is a timely people's history of the 20th century, told by women of color, recommended to all who want to add to their understanding of how race matters in America. In tone, this production favors compassion over confrontation. More talk than action, it could work even for relatively young children if they know some history and like listening to great storytellers. The show runs through April 24 in Hartford.
photo credit: T. Charles Erickson