BWW Review: HAVING OUR SAY, North Carolina Theatre
"At my age, I can say what I want," Bessie Delany says in HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS' FIRST 100 YEARS. And truly, who's to argue with a woman who's lived more than a century? North Carolina Theatre's latest show tells the story of sisters, Sadie and Bessie Delany, two African-American women who were trailblazers in their careers and communities. Directed by Tia James, the play invites the audience into the sisters' home as they recount stories from their lives and explores themes of family, faith, and what it means to be a black woman in America.
The play is adapted from the 1993 New York Times bestselling book of the same name. The book was based on oral histories from the sisters compiled by journalist Amy Hill Hearth. They were interviewed for a 1991 New York Times feature story which morphed into a book that sold more than five million copies. Emily Mann adapted the book into a play which was nominated for a Tony Award in 1995; it was adapted into a television movie in 1999. Now, NCT presents the play here in Raleigh where the Delany sisters grew up. They have partnered with St Augustine's University where many members of the Delany family attended college.
Sadie and Bessie Delany were two of ten children born to Henry Beard Delany and his wife, Nannie. Delany was a former slave who became the first African-American bishop to be elected to the American Episcopal Church. The girls grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina on the campus of St Augustine's College (now University), where their parents attended, met, and worked. The sisters later moved to New York City, where they lived for more than 75 years, and became a high school teacher and a dentist.
The play is structured with the two sisters speaking directly to the audience, who seems to be a stand-in for the journalist who received their oral histories. The two sisters take the audience through their family history, with the help of many photographs, and speak about everything from the importance of education to the injustices of Jim Crow laws and segregation. Bessie is the more outgoing, spirited woman - in many ways the classic younger sister - and is very agitated about the racism she has experienced during her lifetime.
Having Our Say is directed by Tia James, a faculty member of the UNC Professional Actor Training Program, and it's clear that she understands the heart of this piece. A play with two women talking directly to the audience doesn't sound like it would be engaging and yet James makes it seem entirely natural. Throughout part of the show, the sisters cook as they talk, making a grand dinner to celebrate their deceased father's birthday. This gives even more of a warm, familiar feeling to the stories that the women are telling and puts the audience at ease.
The two actresses playing the sisters deftly create two distinct and fascinating personalities. The script is surprisingly hilarious and both actresses are spot on in their delivery of the humorous lines. Gayle Turner plays Sadie Delany, the elder sister, and local actress Lakeisha Coffey plays Bessie. Coffey is a graduate of St Augustine's University herself, which makes the role even more special. Turner's Sadie is a bit more reserved and gentler than Coffey's Bessie, who is a bit of a firebrand. Yet the two work perfectly in tandem with each other, often delivering lines perfectly in unison. They are completely believable as two sisters who have spent their entire lives together. They also do a very nice job of making themselves seem older, particularly in the way they make the cadence of their voices sound like elderly women.
The design of the show is particularly impressive. While the costuming by Denise Schumaker is simple with demure coordinating outfits, the set design by David Griffie is elaborate. The set contains multiple intricate rooms that feel very lived in. The most impressive part of the design are the large multiple picture frames onstage, including one that takes up the back wall of the stage. As the sisters discuss family members, actual photographs of them are projected up, thanks to David Rawlins's project design. This helps to remind the audience that the characters portrayed onstage are not fictional, but based directly on real people who grew up here in Raleigh.
Too often, history is focused on the politicians and monarchs, the outlaws and military men. It is important to celebrate the ordinary people who blazed their own trails in quieter ways and who made a difference in their community. It is particularly important to lift up the history of overlooked groups, from women to African-Americans, and this play certainly does that. Having Our Say is both a celebration of two remarkable women and a reminder of the hardships that people in our country have faced and continue to face every day.
HAVING OUR SAY is playing at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh until November 17. You can find out more and buy tickets here.
Photo Credit: Curtis Brown Photography