Life is too short to miss 'Our Say' Review: Delightful, poignant play welcomes us into the Delany home, and their story won't let us go.

April 10, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Some people grieve to remember, but we celebrate," says Bessie Delany in "Having Our Say," Emily Mann's play about the centenarian Delany sisters. And indeed, "Having Our Say" -- currently at the Mechanic Theatre -- is an endearing celebration from start to finish.

Adapted from the book of the same name, written by Sarah ("Sadie") L. Delany and A. Elizabeth ("Bessie") Delany, with Amy Hill Hearth, this two-person play celebrates the lives of a pair of extraordinary women. Daughters of a former slave who became, in Bessie's words, "the first elected Negro bishop of the Episcopal Church, U.S.A," Bessie was the second African-American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York and Sadie was the first African-American domestic science teacher in a New York City high school.

As portrayed by Lizan Mitchell and Micki Grant, Bessie and Sadie tell a story suffused with warmth. The event of the play, and the specific cause for their celebration, is the birthday of their late father, an occasion they always honor by preparing his favorite food.

While Bessie and Sarah stuff a chicken, roast a ham, section oranges for ambrosia and mix ingredients for pound cake, they discuss some of the evening's toughest subject matter -- the Jim Crow days, during which Bessie came close to being lynched.

Mann has used cooking as a buffer for difficult material before. In her first play, "Annulla," a Holocaust survivor cooks chicken soup while talking about the Nazis. In "Having Our Say," the meal preparations not only make us feel at home, they humanize a page of American history, giving tangible dimensions to a shameful era.

Humanizing history is one of the things this play does best, and it is filled with names from history books -- from Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, both of whom the sisters knew, to Eleanor Roosevelt, whom they met through their brother, Hubert, an assistant U.S. attorney.

Characterizations are another thing at which this play and its cast, directed by Mann, excel. Mitchell and Grant convey such close ties -- frequently speaking in unison or finishing each other's sentences, gently touching the other's hand -- so that they genuinely come across as sisters. At the same time, there's no mistaking the differences in their personalities.

Mitchell's pugnacious Bessie is every inch the "feeling child," as Sadie describes her, "quick to anger and very outspoken." Bessie cries as easily out of outrage as sorrow. Her strong emotions repeatedly cause her voice to rise and bring her to her feet. Mitchell's left foot, by the way, is in a cast due to a fall on the ice during the show's Minneapolis engagement; the impediment, however, only further increases the actress' ability to portray a character who is many years her senior, but who never let anything get in her way.

On the other hand, Grant's "sweet sister Sadie" is the conciliatory member of the pair. Sadie's philosophy is: "Life is short, and it's up to you to make it sweet." Grant, best known as the author of "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope," has no trouble depicting Sadie's gentle nature. There's almost always a smile on her face, and though her diction is crisp, her tone is dulcet. Near the end, however, when Sadie has to re-enact the rare moment of boldness in which she stood up against a Bronx gang, Grant lacks the conviction required by this unexpected display of boldness.

The sisters were "discovered" in 1991 by journalist Hearth in an article for the New York Times. Two years later, their best-selling memoir appeared, turning the reclusive sisters, who never married and lived most of their lives together, into celebrities. In the years between then and Bessie's death in September at age 104, they appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and were visited by Hillary Clinton. Two subsequent Delany books have also been published, the latest in February, Sadie's "On My Own at 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie."

But it is through Mann's dramatization, in which Bessie and Sadie welcome us into their home, that we get to know the sisters best. As a collection of reminiscences, initially related by two actresses seated statically in armchairs, the play can be a bit slow. Yet Bessie and Sadie are such ladies -- and venerable ones at that -- that Mann can hardly be faulted for refusing to rush their account of 100 years of American history.

"I never thought I'd see the day when people would be interested in what two old Negro women have to say," Bessie says at the start of the play. "Having Our Say" makes you more than interested. It makes you proud to have made the acquaintance of Bessie and Sadie Delany. Even more, thanks to Grant and Mitchell's heartwarming performances, it makes you embrace them as cherished friends.

'Having Our Say'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays; through April 20

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 4/10/97

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