The sisters in Irving Berlin’s song by that name, “Sisters,” explained their relationship as follows: “Two different faces, but in tight places / we think and we act as one.”
The subjects of Emily Mann’s play Having Our Say at the George Street Playhouse through December 17, fit that description—to a point.
Those sisters are Sarah L. and A. Elizabeth Delany—Sadie and Bessie—members of a distinguished black family. The play, a multiple Tony nominee in 1995, is based on their book of the same title. Bessie Delany died in 1995 at the age of 104, and Sadie died in 1999 at the age of 109.
The sisters were among the children of Henry Beard and Nanette James Delany. Henry Delany, was born into slavery in Georgia but after emancipation became an educator and a clergyman—in fact the first black priest to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Henry and Nanette graduated from St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina where they then joined the faculty.
Among the Delanys’ children, Sarah became a teacher, Bessie a dentist, Hubert a judge and civil rights activist, and Henry Jr. a clergyman.
The play finds Sadie and Bessie, played by Inga Ballard and Rosalyn Coleman, in their suburban New York home, both past their hundredth birthdays. Addressing the audience as visitors, the women recount both the broad sweep of their family’s history and the stories of their personal and professional lives. Their recollections are vivified for the audience both by projections above and beside the set and by photographs of the kinfolk that the sisters share.
The sisters consider their childhood to have been “privileged” and “sheltered.” Their devotion to their parents, and particularly Sadie’s devotion to her mother, is a recurring theme. A great deal of their narrative involves the shock of the Jim Crow laws that were imposed in the South while they were still young, by lynching that became a common practice in those states, and by the slights they witnessed or were subject to because of their race.
The sisters, as they mention more than once with spunky pride, never married, although they did not lack for “beaux.” The term they prefer for themselves is “maiden ladies.” Since they moved as young women from Raleigh to New York, at first crowded into a brother’s apartment, they have lived together, much of the time in Harlem. As a result, their behavior and speech has a synchronized character in which each knows her own and her sister’s role at any given moment. Under Laionna Michelle’s direction, Ballard and Coleman portray this aspect of the sisters’ lives with an easy cadence that makes it seem natural. There are several passages in which the women are preparing food or setting a table in an effortless duet, and one sister often adds her voice to the other’s as they finish a sentence together.
In spite of this familiarity, Sadie and Bessie have contrasting personalities, and the contrast is well played by these actors. Sadie is quiet, patient, understated, and Bessie is passionate, often explosive—she calls herself a “naughty little darkie.” Her fiery character on at least one occasion put her life at risk. This difference was reflected in their parts in the campaign for civil rights: Bessie was a leading figure in the protest movement, and Sadie was more inclined toward passive resistance. Both were apt to point out the humor in their experiences and together would laps into paroxysms of laughter. Ballard’s and Coleman’s presentation of those episodes as well as moments of melancholy and even grief are convincing and moving.
The attractive set by Shoko Kambara comprising the kitchen, living room, and dining room of the sisters’ Mount Vernon home, enhances the feeling that this is more of a visit than a performance. By using this visit to tell their family’s story beginning in the mid-19th century, these appealing Delany sisters entertain their guests, and they make us like, admire, and respect them. And they remind us that despite what the Delanys and millions of others have endured, black Americans are still just that—Americans with an adjective, a modifier, a term that sets them apart, no yet called, as Bessie urges in this play, “Americans, that’s all!”
Having Our Say is presented by George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (11 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ) now through December 17, 2023. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.
All Photos by T. Charles Erickson