From Delany sisters, wisdom of the ages Theater: Emily Mann gives African-American centenarians their say and the audience a distinctly human experience.

April 08, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Child, I feel like I've known you all my life," centenarian Sadie Delany told playwright and director Emily Mann on the first afternoon they spent together.

Mann was visiting Sadie and her sister Bessie while researching the play "Having Our Say," which went on to become one of the hits of the 1994-1995 Broadway season and is now on a national tour. (It arrives at the Mechanic Theatre tonight.)

Adapted from the memoir written by Sarah ("Sadie") L. Delany and A. Elizabeth ("Bessie") Delany with writer Amy Hill Hearth, "Having Our Say" is Mann's two-person drama, which quietly and movingly relates 100 years of American history. In the space of an evening, the play takes the sisters -- whose father was born a slave -- from the Jim Crow era in their native North Carolina, to Harlem in its heyday, to Mount Vernon, N.Y., where the play is set and where Mann met them a few years ago.

Sadie became the first African-American home economics teacher in a New York City high school and Bessie was the second African-American woman dentist licensed in New York. The story of these remarkable sisters might seem distinctly American. And yet, Mann was struck by how much they reminded her of two women she'd met in South Africa in 1987 -- Adelaide Tambo and Albertina Sisulu, wives of African National Congress officials, and the women who "ran the revolution while the men were in prison."

"What I got from the women in South Africa and I got from the Delany sisters," Mann explains, "was an incredibly big vision of what we can be as human beings and what our best selves can be, and it's not saccharine, it's not fake, it's totally earned. If that kind of wisdom could get out to a larger populace, I felt I had been able to do something worthwhile in my life."

Molasses and vinegar

Another thing that struck her was how much the Delanys' relationship resembled a marriage. "I saw how each really finished each other's thoughts, each other's gestures, and the respect and love that just emanated from them to each other," she says.

"One is molasses [Sadie] and the other is vinegar [Bessie]," she says, borrowing Bessie's description. The glue holding them together, Mann concluded, was a shared value system built on "family, religion and giving to other people and education."

Many of these values, as well as the struggle for equality, had also been instilled in Mann, who "grew up in the civil rights movement," as she puts it. The production of "Having Our Say" illustrates the Delanys' commentary with period slides, including one of Mann's late father, historian Arthur Mann. It shows him on the march from Selma to Montgomery with noted black historian John Hope Franklin, whom she describes as "my second father."

The playwright had another connection with the Delanys as well -- that of being a faculty child. The sisters were raised on the campus of what is now Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., where their parents were teachers and administrators. Mann grew up on the college campuses where her father taught -- first Smith and then the University of Chicago.

Nowadays, she's back on a college campus, this time as artistic director of Princeton University's McCarter Theatre. One of a relatively small number of playwrights who are artistic directors of major American regional theaters, Mann -- who turns 45 on Saturday-- is in her seventh season at the McCarter.

Under her guidance, the theater won a 1994 Tony Award and has developed a reputation for nurturing new work, especially that of pre-eminent South African playwright, Athol Fugard. (The McCarter production of Fugard's latest play, "Valley Song," is currently on tour and opens May 1 at Washington's Kennedy Center.)

Despite her background, Mann didn't initially think of turning "Having Our Say" into a stage play. She had read the 1993 book on the recommendation of her sister, a literary agent. "I absolutely loved it," Mann says. She then lent it to Judith &L Rutherford James, a friend and producer, who insisted: "Emily, you've got to do this."

In 1987, Mann and James had worked with Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, on an unproduced miniseries about Winnie Mandela, which had taken them to South Africa. They teamed up again when Cosby's enthusiasm for "Having Our Say" turned out to echo that of Mann and James. At first they considered a screen adaptation, then Mann decided to put Sadie and Bessie's story on stage.

"I was the one who said let's do it as a play first. Why don't we keep control over this? Hollywood is so difficult for women and black people," Mann recalls.

'Theater of testimony'

She visited the Delanys over a series of afternoons. The very first meeting supplied the hook she needed to restructure their story into a stage play. Just as the sisters welcomed her into their home, so would the characters welcome the audience.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.