“Well if you think it’ll help somebody, then it’s worth doing.”
The Delany sisters are unsure of why anyone would want to know about their story. However, when asked to share their experiences, they remembered the above quote that was instilled in them by their mother, Nanny Logan Delany - If it can help someone, then it is clearly worth doing. With that in mind, they embark on the journey of retelling their life stories that are over 100 years old and in no way over. To them, it is nothing special – simply their lives. To anyone listening, it is almost too remarkable to imagine.
Goodman Theatre presents the Revival of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years
Written by Emily Mann and directed by Chuck Smith, Having Our Say is adapted from the book of the same title, published in 1994, by the sisters themselves – Sarah L. Delany (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth Dalany (Bessie), with the help of the journalist Amy Hill Hearth who brought their story to the surface in a New York Times article 1991. At the time, the Delany sisters were at the ages of 102 and 100, and Having Our Say is their account of the last 100 years. This goes back not only to when they were born in 1889 and 1891, but also exploring their parents’ childhoods as young African-American children in the late 1850s and early 1860s – with slavery itself only ending in 1865.
It is easy to expect an account such as this – traversing the terrain of slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the Civil Rights Movement, to be one filled with pain and anger. While those feelings and more are certainly present, the Delany sisters’ story is truly one of triumph, and the play captures that balance beautifully. The sisters not only defied all expectations in regard to their ages, but also their career paths and success considering all of the odds stacked against them as African-American women in the midst of a challenging century in history. Through Mann’s piece, Sadie (Marie Thomas, with lovely charm) and Bessie (Ella Joyce, with a spot-on comedic timing) open up their home, inviting the audience to join them as they re-live their tale, and the journey is certainly a wild ride.
Tea Time at the Delany Household
Helmed by Smith, the artistic team manages to transform the massive Albert Theatre space into one that is intimate and welcoming, while at the same time maintaining the epic feel that is appropriate for such a rare kind of story.
Having Our Say begins with the Delany sisters sitting down for tea in their living room, and Set Designer Linda Buchanan’s scenic design is stunning and filled with gorgeous detail. Sadie and Bessie are filled with charm and kindness, and Buchanan’s living room appropriately brings that aesthetic to life. Once tea is over and it is time to cook dinner, the sisters do not stop talking, but rather invite the audience to join them in the kitchen to continue the storytelling. Buchanan's set rotates to reveal a kitchen in the rear, which feels every bit as authentic.
While the living room itself looks as if it could have been cut out and transported from an actual home, the space above is filled with floating large picture frames. It is important to remember that the Delany sisters’ story is truth, and as the sisters begin to tell their story, Projections Designer Mike Tutaj fills the frames with original images of the individuals from history – both of the individuals and major events they discuss. As the sisters tell of their father for example, Reverend Henry Beard Delany, a man who lived his first seven years as a house slave but eventually went on to become the first African-American man to be elected as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, his picture looms above the audience as a reminder of his real triumph in history. Then as we learn about Nanny Logan Delany, and her life that began with parents who could never marry because her father was white and her mother was African-American, her beautiful image fills a frame.
This choice enhances Smith’s production, granting it a new level of authenticity, and furthers the idea that while the Delany sisters are no longer with us, their story continues to live on.
A Story of Hope and Charm
In many ways, the Delany sisters have so many reasons to be filled with hatred. They pre-dated the Jim Crow era, and witnessed the country transform first hand, as well as the racism that persisted after. However, as Mann’s play emphasizes, the women were raised – as were their eight other siblings – on values such as kindness and strength, and that, along with the support they gave each other, got them through the hardest of times – including prejudice in the community, and the heartbreaking deaths of both parents. Bessie went on to become second African American woman to become a licensed dentist, and Sadie became the first African-American woman to teach domestic science in a New York high school.
Joyce and Thomas portray the sisters with grace and charm, creating a truly compelling and thought-provoking account of history. The play itself may just be two women sharing their life story, but Smith’s production is captivating, with a pacing and comedic element that keeps the audience hooked on every development.
Charming and deeply moving, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years is the perfect way to spend an evening.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Playing through June 10, 2018
Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 2:00pm and 7:30pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 2:00pm and 8:00pm
Sundays at 2:00pm
Run Time: 2 hours, with intermission.
170 N. Dearborn Street
Chicago, IL 60601
Photo Credit: Liz Lauren
Bessie Delany Ella Joyce
Sadie Delany Marie Thomas
Playwright Emily Mann
Director Chuck Smith
Scenic Design Linda Buchanan
Costume Design Birgit Rattenborg Wise
Lighting Design John Culbert
Sound Design Ray Nardelli
Projection Design Mike Tutaj
Note: An excerpt of this review appears in Theatre in Chicago
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.