BWW Review: The Delany Sisters Get the Last Word in HAVING OUR SAY
Bessie and Sadie Delany were two real life figures who experienced American history in action. Born to an emancipated slave, they grew up in the segregated South, faced the lynchings and race riots we only read about today, and rose above to become successful career women. Having Our Say is their memoir on stage. Originally published as a book by Amy Hill Hearth in 1993, Having Our Say was adapted as a Broadway play in 1995 by Emily Mann. Having Our Say features the 101 year old Bessie and 103 year old Sadie welcoming the audience into their home while they cook a meal to celebrate their father's birthday.
Lyric Theatre's staging of this quiet, comfortable play makes it feel like you're really sitting in the living room of these two "maiden ladies". There are couches, dining tables, and a full-sized working kitchen where much of the action takes place. Framed pictures of loved ones adorn the shelves and walls, and the sisters talk about every one of them. It really is like visiting someone at their home, listening to them talk about their lives. And what extraordinary lives they led.
Terry Burrell is Bessie and Julia Lema is Sadie. These two Broadway actresses share the stage beautifully with each other. They have a natural ease of togetherness. It's easy to see that Bessie and Sadie rely on each other. They finish each other's sentences, and when they start cooking in the kitchen, they move around each other in a graceful dance.
By the time of the play, the sisters have lived in New York for their entire adult lives. They grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and went to college at Columbia University. They were two of ten children, the last survivors of their Civil War Era family.
Burrell is feisty as the younger sister. She's tall and statuesque, and draws herself up when she talks about her life and career. Bessie was a dentist, the second black female dentist to practice in New York State. Their parents raised them to always be proud black women, to recognize their contribution and to never let oppression make them bitter. These women are an inspiration. Their stories are important, not only because of the history they witnessed, but because of who they are as people.
Lema also has fire in her eyes as she tells their story. The Sisters are proud of where they came from. They're resilient, growing up at a time when the entire world was against them.
The performances by Burrell and Lema humanize an era that has erroneously been glossed over for decades. Black and white photos are suddenly much more tangible when described by real people. Direction by Monique Midgette creates a fully immersive experience. It's important not to over-direct actors in a show like this. Midgette has created a perfect balance so that the interaction feels real, not choreographed.
Though not obviously appealing to younger audiences, it's vital for patrons of all ages to see stories like these onstage. Having Our Say serves as a reminder that we should always engage with the elders in our lives. They've witnessed the world in a way that we'll never truly understand unless we see it through their eyes. Having Our Say is not the most exciting play. There are moments of slowness, even a sleepy, relaxed quality. And that is, of course, the point. It brings up nostalgia and a time gone by. Anyone who's ever been to their grandparents' house and watched or helped them cook will remember that feeling. It's a memory that comes back to you less and less as you get older, and eventually you lose all together. It feels like you're finally home.
Having Our Say runs until March 8th at Lyric's Plaza Theatre. For tickets, visit lyrictheatreokc.com or call the box office at 405-524-9312.