"Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years", the best selling memoir the centenarians wrote with the help of Amy Hearth a few years back, was an inspiration for its readers. The Delany girls were the daughters of a man born into slavery who rose to become an respected scholar and the first bishop of the Episcopal church of African descent. Like their five siblings, the Delany sisters were raised to embody in their own lives the highest ideals of Christian citizenship in an America whose declaration that "all men are created equal" was never intended to apply to non whites, or to women. The sisters were as deeply devoted to Family as to Race and Country and God, but they eschewed marriage and children themselves to live together, drawing strength from each other and bearing witness to the power of goodness. The two were both good-at and good-for-- although Dr. Bessie would tell you that Sadie was the one who succeeded in being just plain good. Back breaking physical labor as well as intellectual accomplishment made it possible for the sisters to challenge bigotry and achieve careers: Sadie's in in education, and Bessie's in dentistry. A hundred years of fighting the good fight gave them the perspective, and earned them the right, to tell all of us who are younger than they are what's what-- where we all were as a nation a hundred years ago, how we got to where we are now, and what we should be busy doing so that the next hundred years might be an improvement on the last. It seemed a kind of miracle to have all this wit and strength emerge from obscurity with a message of faith, hope, and charity for the new century. The sisters were a living refutation of the corrosive cynicism and social Darwinism that passes for conventional wisdom nowadays, and that has been draining the energies of uplift from public life. Thank heavens that they had their say! And thanks to Emily Mann and the McCarter Theatre for putting their story onto the stage, where it may have a wider life than merely between the covers of a book.
Under the sensitive guiding hand of Lois Roach, the New Rep actresses give a tactful indication of what extreme old age might look like as the sisters go about their ordinary domestic tasks in well used bodies that are also the temples of their owner's souls. Parker's Bessie must take account of arthritic hands, and Woods' Sadie has a bad hip. Both ladies must think ahead whenever they move, taking care to maintain balance and minimize strain. There is a current of love and detailed understanding that runs between the sisters, spoken and unspoken. Bessie is the spunky one, fond of a joke and never backing off from a fight. Sadie is the sure one, confident that her inner voice, speaking through the words of her sainted parents or through scripture or science, will guide her through danger and toil to heavenly peace. The sisters' outer voices are roughened by age, and a bit more Southern and countrified than I would expect from ladies who attended prestigious schools and were taught by Northern scholars; but their deep tones are rich with nuance, and their modulations differentiate between memories that have often been rehearsed and shared with outsiders, and transient memories that arise spontaneously in response to the particular occasion.
As presented in Mann's script, the occasion is a rare visit to the Delanys' home by a curious and sympathetic white reporter eager to hear the sisters' life stories. The visitor, and the audience, is graciously invited to join the Delanys in their celebratory feast in honor of their father's birthday, featuring his favorite dishes. Their feast preparation ritual is an important instance of the sisters' practice of what Buddhists would call mindfulness, or the attitude which is expressed in the Christian hymn based on the 23rd psalm as "May all my works be praise". This must be how these courageous women have kept the love that filled their parents' house alive in themselves for so long, an ever-present inspiration and comfort.
As adapter and director, Mann put on the elaborate turntable stage of a Broadway theatre a veritable replica of the sisters' small house in upstate New York, complete with working kitchen. The modest elegance of the home was a silent testimony to sisters' talent for the gracious forms in which good manners and social display becomes a "ceremony of innocence". Like aristocratic explorers dressing for dinner in a jungle tent, the sisters uphold civilization: but their ceremony does not depend on a crew of exploited hewers of wood and drawers of water to do the actual work. Family photographs and historic photos from newspapers were projected on a huge screen set round the proscenium to supply visual background for the events and personalities that touched their lives. At the New Rep, the turntable is no loss-- Janie E. Howland's cozy parlor set stands in for the rest of the house very well. The ladies only pretend to cook a gourmet meal for us-- but that's a mercy-- who wants to smell those yummy things cooking in the tiny New Rep space and never get to eat any of them? In both productions, the house looks very much as I remember the Detroit house of my long dead Great Aunt Louise, who would have been the sister's contemporary, and whose taste in home decoration, like theirs, seemed to have been formed in the early years of this century; a very pleasant period indeed. A selection of photos is projected onto the back wall, and in the smaller space the effect of Eric Levenson's lighting and these slides is less that of "placing" the ladies in history than of being offered a glimpse inside their personal memories.
The two hours or so I spent watching Gloria Foster and Mary Alice impersonate the Delanys, in the company of the most receptive, sensitive and celebratory audience I have ever been privileged to be a part of, is one of the top ten theatergoing experiences of my life. But I must underline that that particular occasion was a "theatergoing" rather than a "playgoing" experience. Speaking through actors who brought the weight of hard won knowledge to their lightest utterance, the narrative on that New York stage was telling me what I very much wanted to hear, and telling it in the presence of others who were better able to judge the truth of it than I. The (mostly female, mostly Black-- or, as the Delany sisters prefer, Colored) New York audience responded with joy. Here were women like women whom they knew and admired from childhood. Here lives of high minded service were central, for once, their spiritual perspective honored. The "amen"s and "tell it, sister"s from the audience were additional witness. Tears of joy, and of gratitude, streamed down my cheeks. The occasion felt very much like being in the congregation at the funeral of a beloved theologian and teacher in my own church, and very little like being in the audience at a traditional play.
Now, being given convincing testimony in favor of goodness is a burden as well as a comfort. Story or sermon, it carries with it the injunction: "Go ye and do likewise". My immediate reaction to "Having Our Say" was to think, "This should be mandatory for every junior high school student in America!" But from those who have had no personal experience with living saints, resistance would be high, and for good reason. Mann's "Having Our Say" is cousin to the educational monologues that earn a living for actors who dress up as Famous Historical Americans and tell schoolchildren the inspirational story of "their" life, and cousin once removed to the speeches celebrity coaches give for the Chamber of Commerce exhorting businessmen to apply the lessons of sport to their enterprise. Skeptics want evidence that they are hearing the whole truth, and that the restrictions and temptations faced by the speaker were as powerful as theirs today.
Jim Crow provided plenty of obstacles for the sisters to meet on their righteous path, but if they ever doubted that their way was indeed the way of righteousness and would prevail, there is no trace of that doubt in the script. There's no trace of plot, either, or of discovery. Mann's Delany sisters are characters who unfold rather than change. The mere survival of 103-year-old Sadie and 101-year-old Bessie attests to their victory over the obstacles, and their modesty assures that the sisters will minimize their struggles. Facing down a potential lynch mob, Bessie attributes her courage to ornery stubbornness. Bessie also attributes her hard won ability to avoid bitterness and resist hating all white people to her parents' and Sadie's saintly example. But if Sadie sets the standard for loving kindness, Bessie sets it for honesty and justice. She sees all the sins of the oppressors, and while she uses the contrast between their ideals and their actions as material for her jokes, she users her anger as energy with which to protest, agitate, and organize. The response of the audience in New York was phenomenal: it was as if we were cheering some great record setting feat at an Olympics of the soul.
When, as in The New Repertory Theatre's production, the sisters are performed by actors younger than the majority of the mostly gray haired mostly white suburban audience, "Having Our Say" is a very different event. The larger conflict, the personal experience of the power of the opposing forces and with it the bone deep sense of what a human triumph the sisters' rise represents, is muffled. The Rite of Passage implied by the passing of wisdom from an older generation is symbolic rather than literal. The potent call and response of mutual witness is missing, and the piece becomes dependent on the performers' ability to convey the depths and cross currents beneath the sisters' serenity. This kind of acting talent is almost as rare as sainthood, so I suppose my wish that every junior high school student in America be moved and inspired by a performance of "Having Our Say" isn't practical. There just aren't enough performers like Gloria Foster and Mary Alice and Kathryn Woods and Jacqui Parker to go around. But even so-- it'd be worth a try.