BWW Reviews: HAVING OUR SAY is Another Brilliant CVRep Production
"I never let prejudice stop me from what I wanted to do in this life, child. Life is short. It's up to you to make it sweet." - Sadie Delany
"Education! Education, child. Education always makes the difference!" - Bessie Delany
Ron Celona, Artistic Director of the Coachella Valley Reportory Theatre, has scored yet another coup as director of CVRep's current production, HAVING OUR SAY. Emily Mann's script, adapted from the autobiography of Bessie and Sadie Delany, is alternately funny, poignant, nostalgic, and tender as it draws the audience into two elderly sisters' lives. The top-notch acting of H. Chris Brown and Regina Randolph, the brilliant set design by Jimmy Cuomo, the imaginative props by Doug Morris, and the professionalism of the entire crew make Ms. Mann's script sparkle.
The story begins when two middle-class, educated sisters from Raleigh, North Carolina, invite us into their New York home in 1993 for Southern hospitality and story-telling. The ladies are centenarians whose father was a young child during the Civil War, but they are not the stereotyped "flowers of Southern womanhood" who speak wistfully of the "lost cause." Born to a mixed-race woman and a former slave whom the Civil War freed as a child, the ladies tell matter-of-fact stories about their experiences with discrimination, some merely infuriating and others blood-curdling.
Even before the figurative curtain rises - CVRep has no actual curtain - Mr. Cuomo's set creates the tone for the play. The cheerful, albeit old-fashioned, kitchen, dining room, and sitting room imply that friendly, nostalgic people live in the house. I fell in love with the pair of ceramic geese in the kitchen, the male in a top hat, and the female in a kerchief. Family photos (projected on a screen during the show as the sisters discuss them) and cheerful paintings adorn the wall and mantle. When I saw the haimish set, I pictured myself being invited in for tea by friendly, garrulous, people. This is exactly what happens as the action unfolds.
Sadie and Bessie Delany, 104 and 102 years old, respectively, refer to themselves as "colored" or "Negro;" as one points out, they are brown, therefore "black" does not fit, and they are simply American, therefore "African-American" does not describe them, either. Their stories demonstrate how far this country has come since they were born in 1889 and 1891- and how far we still have to go to achieve the race-blind society for which the sisters wish. In fact, some of the stories describe incidents similar to those taking place in the last year, the only difference being that many Americans refuse to believe that there is still bigotry against black people in the 21st century. The sisters explicitly mock the idea that people who are denied decent educations and decent jobs, and who not so long ago were second class citizens in the eyes of the law, can be expected to catch up as soon as the laws are changed.
The sisters pride themselves on their cleanliness and good cooking. While they speak to each other and to us, they chop vegetables, and prepare ambrosia. (I wouldn't have recognized the ambrosia ingredients, but my neighbor explained what it was). The clever use of actual food preparation leads to the only disconnect in the production. Specifically, Sadie and Bessie, who emphasize their parents' insistence upon cleanliness, and whose father lined the ten children up each morning for inspection, prepare food without washing their hands first.
The sisters, whose stories evoke smiles of recognition and plenty of laughs (especially when they say the same thing at the same time), recount painful moments, as well. The cremation urn on the mantle contains the ashes of Little Hubie, their adorable, disabled toddler nephew. Almost as heartbreaking as Little Hubie's story is their shock at the death of their brother, the first of the ten children to pass away.
The family tales, happy and sad, are engaging, but the true eloquence in the play is its ability to place us, the audience, in the sisters' shoes, as they describe their encounters with bigotry and, worse, Jim Crow. Bessie admits her anger at white people, carefully separating her white relatives from the "Rebbie Boys," the dangerous white men who think of themselves as Rebel soldiers. The sisters' white grandfather adored them, but they never refer to him as anything other than "Mr. Millian," even though they both loved him enough to move in with him to cheer him up after their grandmother died. It is almost as if the love they felt for Mr. Millian, and he for them, had to be hidden under the patina of conformity to Southern mores, lest an outsider object and cause problems.
Along with teaching the family to be clean and pious, and with supervising their homework to make sure they got top grades, their father taught them another lesson: To hide when they see a crowd forming. Bessie recounts what happened as she and two other teachers sat in the "colored" waiting room of a train station on their way to take up new positions in Georgia. A drunken white man stuck his head in and proceeded to make increasingly rude and threatening comments. Bessie told him off in no uncertain terms, at which point the other two ladies ran out to hide in the woods. Bessie did not heed her father's advice even when a crowd started to form on the tracks, although she was terrified, knowing that the white men were debating whether to lynch her. Two things saved her: The drunk was so obnoxious that some of the men in the crowd walked away in disgust and the train arrived, breaking up the crowd. The audience never did find out whether her frightened companions joined Bessie in running for the refuge of the train or remained in the woods in terror.
As I watched Bessie recount her story about the drunk verbally abusing her in the waiting room, I felt my own rage building. I became aware that I was not picturing the scene as an observer would. Instead, I became Bessie, looking at the drunk and at the crowd and wondering if I should stand my ground or attempt to escape. Only when Bessie ran for the train and made it safely on board did I resume my observer status.
One of the sisters comments that oppressed people learn to have a sense of humor. Sadie and Bessie quip almost endlessly about discrimination, but the atmosphere turns grim when the conversation turns to lynching. When the sisters speak of what happened to a pregnant woman - the mob cut her open and murdered the baby and her - the shock in the audience is almost palpable.
Fortunately, the play does not end on this wretched note. One of the last segments involves the sisters speculating on whether there will ever be a black President of the United States. One opines that there will be a white woman President before a black President, and a black woman before a black man. Now, twenty years after the play's release, their speculation has become humorous - even though Bessie claims to be able to see the future, these predictions are obviously wrong.
The play's unusual structure - dissolution of the fourth wall for a conversation with the audience, two characters who are onstage together for almost the entire play, the need for perfect timing for the characters to finish each other's sentences and to speak the same line together, and actual food preparation on stage, including sharp knives - could result in a mediocre production in the hands of lesser individuals. Both Ms. Brown and Ms. Randolph rise to the challenging roles, and convince the audience that we are looking at two spry centenarians to whom the events they discuss occurred. Their artistry is a pleasure to watch.
HAVING OUR SAY continues through February 8th. Because the play recounts major events in the life of our country and in the quest for racial justice, teens would benefit from seeing the production. However, parents and teachers need to warn them ahead of time about the lynching description - it is even more horrifying than most lynching stories.
CVRep is located in The Atrium, at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 760-296-2966, or by clicking on the link at http://cvrep.org/individual-tickets-now-on-sale/ Box office hours are Mon-Fri from 10:30 a.m. till 2:30 p.m., and two hours prior to each performance. The show appears to be selling out early as word spreads about the production's brilliance, and those who do not obtain tickets immediately are likely to be disappointed.
A study guide about the HAVING OUR SAY television movie is available at http://havingoursay.com/pageUploads/studyguide.pdf .