Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” That sentiment characterizes much of A. Elizabeth “Bessie” and Sarah “Sadie” Delany’s life, a portrait recounted in the North Carolina Theatre production of Emily Mann’s Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years. Adapted from Amy Hill Hearth’s interviews with the sisters that became a best-selling book, this 1995 play later garnered three Tony award nominations.
These two “maiden ladies,” the term they preferred since they never married, reflect on their longevity against the backdrop of events that saw major changes in race relations in this country. It is American history delivered with a personal touch and linked to Triangle history as well.
Both Delany sisters were born in the late 19th century, two years apart, and lived into the 1990s. Their father was born a slave in Georgia and later rose to become this country’s first black Episcopal bishop, helping to build the chapel on the campus of Saint Augustine’s University here in Raleigh.
The sisters, inspired and supported by their parents, were also trailblazers. Sadie, with a master’s degree from Pratt Institute, was the first black home economics teacher in a white New York City high school. Her younger sister, Bessie, attended Columbia University’s dental school and opened her own practice in Harlem. These women experienced the effects of Jim Crow laws, as well as met some of the famous artists of the Harlem renaissance, while also witnessing the highs and lows of the civil rights movement. Their family memories illustrate the prejudices and hardships they endured as whites tried to hold them back in ways both personal and systemic.
Under the careful direction of Tia James, Gayle Turner as Sadie and Lakeisha Coffey as Bessie guide us on a leisurely stroll through their stories, effectively capturing the slowed pace of age in both their speech and physical movements. More importantly, the actors convey the warmth of a deep sisterly bond. At times, the script sounds less than conversational, but that doesn’t detract from the broader message about lives well-lived.
Turner renders Sadie, the more reserved sister, with great nuance. Sadie was a woman who found subtle and clever ways to undermine the racism she encountered while also bearing with gentle grace the weight of grief mixed with gratitude that comes from living a century. Coffey leans into Bessie’s outspoken and spirited nature while also drawing out her sharp wit and sense of deep compassion for others.
David Griffie’s set design incorporates a variety of sentimental touches that personalize the three rooms of the Delany sisters’ home in Mt. Vernon, New York, and allow for the flow of movement as the sisters prepare their deceased father’s favorite foods to celebrate and honor his birthday. They address the audience directly, welcoming us as guests in their home, and joke with each other in a familial way. The black and white pictures, projected on the upstage wall and in floating frames downstage, add to the atmosphere of an afternoon spent fondly reminiscing about the past.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years runs through November 17th at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit https://nctheatre.com/shows/having-our-say-delany-sisters-first-100-years%20 or the RDU on Stage Calendar Page.