In 1991, New York Times reporter Amy Hill Hearth interviewed the Delany sisters, Sadie and Dr. Bessie, for a feature story. That story, of two Negro women, each born toward the end of the 19th Century, and their lives as educated, professional women and civil rights activists, was expanded into the 1993 best-seller Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.
In 1995, the book was adapted into a Broadway play by Emily Mann. The George Street Playhouse and director Laiona Michelle are bringing the Delany sisters back to life — and are they ever happy to tell their tales to us!
The play is set in the sisters’ home in Mount Vernon, New York. They go about their domestic business, regaling us with stories of their life. They start with their upbringing at Raleigh, North Carolina’s St. Augustine’s School, where their father, Episcopal bishop Henry Delany, who had been born into slavery, was Vice-Principal, and their mother, Nanny Logan Delany, was matron.
The sisters’ somewhat privileged upbringing was disrupted with the passage of Jim Crow laws in the South, prompting them to move to Harlem. Sadie gets her master’s of education degree, becoming the first colored woman (the sisters’ descriptor of choice) to teach domestic science in New York high schools. Bessie earns her dentistry degree and becomes the second colored woman licensed to practice in New York state. Along the way, they become involved with the civil rights and women’s rights struggles of the early 20th Century, sprinkling their tales with the names of W.E.B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Cab Calloway, and Booker T. Washington.
The play’s stars, Inga Ballard as Sarah L. “Sadie” Delany and Rosalyn Coleman as Dr. A. Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, never falter in their portrayal of the elderly Delany sisters. They are sharp and sassy ladies, showing traces of the fire and grit of the successful and actively liberal young women they were, as well as their lifelong devotion to each other. This, I believe, can be credited in part to the skillful direction of Laiona Michelle.
However, Emily Mann’s script seems to fall into a problem common to several of her other fact-based plays: there are times when it is more concerned with laying out facts than it is in being dramatically gripping. Most of the first act had this feeling; it is less a reminiscent dialogue between the two sisters than a recitation of family history for the audience’s benefit.
Having Our Say only begins to come to life at the end of its first act, as Bessie describes a near-lynching. Her look of palpable terror while Bessie worriedly calls her name was a searing jolt. The second act, in which the sisters talk about their own exploits in New York, sounds much more like the sisters are opening up to us, getting warmer and more free in their expressiveness as they get to know us.
Shoko Kambara’s set design was somewhat problematic. The interior of the Delany house was as homey as one could expect, yet one wonders why there were short steps down from one area to another — unless they were there to show how older people handle stairs. Too much space, both above and on both sides, was designed to look like exterior walls, dedicated only to showing Zavier A.L. Taylor’s projections of family photographs and pictures of Black notables. Ari Fulton’s costume designs were perfect for successful, comfortable older women in the 1990s.
Having Our Say opens a window to the history of race relations in the United States over the last century as exemplified by two extraordinary women. The Delany sisters act as our warm hostesses, their stories an un-erasable testimony to those tumultuous times. I commend George Street Playhouse for selecting this show for their 50th Anniversary season, and recommend you go and hear Sadie and Dr. Bessie Delany as they have their say.
Having Our Say is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 17, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to georgestplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.