Fort Worth — Nobody would forget history if it were taught like this.
In Emily Mann’s engaging play Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years at Jubilee Theatre, we spend two hours following the amazing Delany sisters, Sadie and Bessie, through their “first” 100 years of living—and what a ride it is!
Jubilee artistic director William (Bill) Earl Ray keeps the simplicity and heart of the piece in focus, but his best move might have been casting two new-to-us faces we’d very much like to see again: East-Coast-based actors Perri Gaffney as Sadie and Marjorie Johnson as Bessie. Decades younger than the centenarians they play, the duo vividly and convincingly inhabit their vastly different characters, “sweet sister Sadie” and outspoken activist Bessie. You already may know the Delany sisters’ story—but to watch them brought to life in these performances is something to see and remember.
Born in 1889 and 1891, Sarah and Elizabeth Delany were the well-educated daughters of a man born in slavery who became the first elected black Episcopal bishop in the U.S. They experienced America’s history from the horse-and-buggy days to the space shuttle and beyond. (Bessie died in 1995 at age 104. Sadie almost made it to a third century—she was 109 when she died in 1999.) And they experienced that history as African-Americans—though they preferred to call themselves “colored” or “Negro” or just, as they say in the play, “Americans…good Americans.” But because of that fact, the dark, divisive—and only occasionally hopeful—realities of race in this country are the heart and soul of their story.
The southern-born sisters spent most of their adult lives in New York City—first in Harlem and the Bronx, then outside the city in suburban Mount Vernon. In 1991, after both sisters had turned 100, they were interviewed by journalist Amy Hill Hearth for the New York Times. The interview became a book, a play, and a 1999 film.
“I have had a good life, child.” The Delanys knew they had an unusual and “privileged” life. Born and raised on the campus of a black college in North Carolina, they (and their eight siblings) were expected to “reach high.” We hear stories of ancestors black and white, of running from the “rebby boys” (white men) who terrorized the community, of baths every night to fight the lie that blacks were “dirty” people. When “Jim Crow” laws in the early 20th century made life for African-Americans even less bearable, the sisters followed their older brother to New York, and broke down barriers as college-educated black women professionals. They never married, knew everyone in the Harlem Renaissance, argued politics with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, took their mother to meet with Eleanor Roosevelt—and marched.
We are treated as welcome visitors to their home on a day when they’re preparing a feast, as they do every year, to celebrate the birthday of their dear “Papa.” Bryan Wofford’s set design plants us firmly in a kitchen/dining/living space that has so many memory-tugging “grandma’s house” details we can’t begin to count them. (He had me at the Chambers range.) Cherished plates and linens come out for the dinner, with stories attached—and as they chop food in the kitchen, we notice the sink has running water.
Barbara O’Donoghue’s costume for each of the ladies is character-revealing: a precisely tucked and edged deep blue for Sadie, a more fluid and vibrant print for Bessie. David Lanza’s choice of songs gives a gentle nudge to our awareness of this story’s background, and a painting by scenic artist Jennye James turns into a screen for photo projections (also by Lanza) from the long Delany family history.
“If Sadie is molasses, then I’m vinegar!” announces Bessie, whose office in Harlem was a meeting place for civil rights activity. In Johnson’s portrayal, Bessie is—every vibrating inch of her—the confrontational sister. She hides her fighter’s heart behind a mugging comic’s face—but truly worries that her anger might keep her out of heaven. Bessie got the blues when she turned 100—“Oh, Lord, how did this happen?”—but says 101 isn’t as bad. Johnson’s Bessie may be bent and worn, but when she raises her face to us, her eyes blaze with passion and awareness.
Sadie’s choice is, in Biblical terms, to “turn away wrath” and keep a cool head, though it’s clear that her beliefs run as deep as Bessie’s. She is as upright as a lily, hair piled high—and her diction even higher. Gaffney’s Sadie has a Katharine Hepburn-ish turn of phrase: a longtime yoga devotee, Sadie describes her workouts as “owah exahcizes.” In her presence, you’d try hard to stand straighter and remember your grammar. Yet she is an empathetic and loving sister to feisty Bessie, who she fondly calls a “naughty old gal.”
I know a woman who told her quarreling daughters they’d better get along—because their sister was probably the person they would know longest in their lifetime. For the Delany sisters that prediction certainly held true. They added to one another’s lives—and by letting us in for an afternoon, they add to our own vision of the complicated human history we share.
It’s been a pleasure, ladies.