Getting Their Say

But do we want to really hear it?

My idea of riveting theater doesn't usually include a couple of hundred-year-old women setting a table, scrubbing a chicken and mixing up a bowl of ambrosia. But that's what passes for action in Having Our Say, the stunningly—I mean, I'm still reeling—successful stage adaptation of the 1991 memoirs of Sadie and Bessie Delany.

The absence of visual power is one big reason—but by no means the only reason—this interminably dreary International City Theatre production doesn't work. After watching Having Our Say, it seems safe to decree a new theatrical maxim: the unexamined life is not worth living, but some examined lives are more worthy of dramatization than others.

Announcing my dissatisfaction with this play is likely to be misinterpreted in any number of ways: as racism (the Delaney sisters are African-American—or "colored," as sister Bessie would have it), ageism (they're each a century old) or sexism. But except as a story of survival (till now, I'd thought only Chinese premiers and senators from the deep South survived past 90 with their wits about them), nothing so delighted me about this play as its end—curtain down, lights up, me gone.

Unlike the millions who have delighted in the exploits of the Delany sisters—on TV, the page or the stage—I found nothing inspiring or interesting in their story. They were certainly heroes of the salt-of-the-Earth type. Both lived well past the 100 years recalled in this play, appeared to be virtuous, and died peacefully, knowing they were good Christians and good Americans. That might get you into heaven, but it doesn't make for good drama.

Don't get me wrong: I know why we're supposed to care. The Delany sisters were more than a couple of hard-working virgins who lived long and cleanly. By the time Bessie died in 1995 at the age of 104 and Sadie this past January at 109, they had become something like living documents of an American century, like talking books. Their perspective should be intriguing: they were African-American women who experienced some of the most notable events of the 20th century, from the imposition of Jim Crow in the South to the Harlem renaissance and the civil-rights struggle. Through it all, the sisters lived, worked and cultivated their sense of family and community.

Why, then, is this play (adapted by the estimable Emily Mann) so dull? Because these old birds, while charming and colorful, never did anything in the big sense of the word. Dramatizing their lives is the theatrical equivalent of a newspaper that prints only good news.

The lack of gravitas is surprising. Mann, who adapted the sisters' 1991 book (which was co-written by a New York Times reporter), directed Anna Deveare Smith's perfectly brilliant Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. Like Twilight, Having Our Say is an oral history; unlike Twilight, Having Our Say's anecdotal style never amounts to anything. The sisters' stories are like any grandma's stories: loosely connected; bittersweet, but more sweet than bitter; and meandering.

There are saving graces, for which the audience should be grateful. Mann peppers the play with the sisters' first-hand accounts of racism as children growing up in North Carolina, as bright college students, and as professional women in Harlem (Sadie was a schoolteacher, and Bessie was a dentist). Some of the stories are almost breathtaking: Bessie's near-lynching as a young woman and the sisters' dismay at traveling to their favorite park with their father only to see that Jim Crow had arrived overnight in the shape of a segregated water fountain.

But collectively, the stories add up to nothing—all sound, a little good-hearted bitching and nothing. The fact that they're presented with a heavy hand doesn't help. The continual reference to the fact that Sadie follows the Booker T. Washington school of accommodation while Bessie is more in the W.E.B. Du Bois protest camp gets old fast, and the centenarian cat fights (like the one over Bessie's refusal to back down from a drunken white racist some 80 years before) are supposed to be realistic, even dramatic moments, but they feel like geriatric versions of the World Wrestling Federation.

Mann's inability to weave together the strands of these women's lives is only one problem. The other is director Caryn Morse Desai's inability to lead her actors to a successful interpretation. Bessie Delany is the better-written and more interesting of the sisters: darker-skinned and younger, she is more obstinate and indignant than her sibling. While the older, fairer-skinned Sadie relies on cleverness to get by, Bessie is more liable to get in a racist's face. Audrey Morgan's Bessie is fun—to a point. Morgan reaches and exceeds that point throughout the production, punctuating her performance with so much bluster and posturing that she eventually destroys her character's humanity. All piss and vinegar signifying nothing.

Amentha Dymally, meanwhile, plays Sadie as a gutless schoolmarm, resorting to one of two looks—chagrined embarrassment or displeasing frown—every time her naughty younger sister says something outrageous.

Instead of feeling inspirational, the sisters come off as anachronisms. This is borne out most notably by the fact that they lived with racism nearly every day of their lives, but they save all their wrath for the individuals who discriminated against them, rather than the institutions—political parties, educational systems, business corporations, the courts—that leverage racism for political gain. At one point, Bessie (the sister who appears to be more in the Du Bois mold) disparages the use of the word "black" or "African-American" to describe herself. She prefers the word "colored" because that's what she is. Perhaps we're supposed to see that as a moment of real intellectual and psychological independence; but it seems like a moment that defines the woman as a mere product of white racists. Bessie's blind acceptance of a term intended to disparage black Americans illustrates an important point: the Delanys' entire value system is framed by the larger value system of late-19th-century white America: work hard, live clean, play fair, and you can rise above anything. That's a nice ideal. In isolated cases, it's even true. But for every two Delany sisters who have risen above racism, there are a hundred, if not a thousand, whose lives have been shattered because of it—and its underlying subtext: class.

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