Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Having our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years
Long Wharf Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's recent review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike


Brenda Pressley and Olivia Cole
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Having our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, a pleasure to watch, concludes its run at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre on March 13th; it then moves a bit northward to Hartford Stage where the two person ever-lively oral history piece continues from March 31st through April 24th. It is a pleasure to eavesdrop as we spend a couple of hours with Miss Sadie Delany (Olivia Cole) and her little sister, Dr. Bessie Delany (Brenda Pressley). The actors' credibility enables one to feel as if the Delany sisters themselves are in the room.

Emily Mann's play is adapted from the 1993 book which was written by the Delanys and Amy Hill Hearth. Sadie and Bessie, and other siblings, grew up in North Carolina. The play finds them in their Westchester, New York, home as they think of a century of life and honor their father. Alexis Distler's pinpoint and elaborate set design provides various interiors, including a jam-packed kitchen, stairs leading upward, a parlor, and upper walls upon which projections appear. The visuals assist but never intrude. The women on stage immediately invite all to listen in, imagine, and partake.

As they converse with one another and an audience, the actors chop vegetables, set the dining table, get the baking batter set, and so forth. It's all very fluent. During the first section of the play, the sisters give an overview, speaking of the early times of their lives, allowing theatergoers to acquaint themselves.

After a very brief intermission, the tone of the show shifts as Sadie and Bessie allude to racism during their lifetimes. Bessie was a protester while Sadie's nature was not of that disposition. During the entirety of the performance, the story is, in part, of complementary natures of two women who enjoyed one another and lived on and on and on. Each is more than 100 years of age as personified in this play.

They allude to the place in North Carolina where Bessie took a drink from the "white" fountain. Their beloved father managed, despite his birth as a slave, to go to college and become a bishop. Sadie taught school while Bessie became a dentist. Each role was distinctive at that time for people of color. Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, W.E.B DuBois were among those they revered and/or met.

Distler's set detail and even clutter support the production and Karen Perry's subdued yet quite suitable costuming is wise. All the while, the women often turn toward the audience; no trace of a fourth wall here. Director Jade King Carroll elects to capitalize on Sadie's natural warmth and Bessie's spirit and spunk. Bessie emphasizes the need to vote! Juxtaposing the personalities enlivens the presentation. Born during the reconstruction period, theirs became an evolutionary journey lasting a century.

Sitting, observing, and pondering, one hears of the impact of Jim Crow laws, the Harlem Renaissance's impact during an era, and, poignantly but without excessive sentiment, how the aged sisters, seemingly without missing a beat, managed to outlive pretty much everyone.

Both of these actors have extensive stage, film, and television credits. Perhaps what is most remarkable and treasured as they perform Having Our Say is their absolute assumption and subsequent talent to fully inhabit these characters. Listening to them, from the first moment, it seems, truly, as though they are the Delanys. Thus, this experience at the theater is an inspiring one, richly educational, never overbearing, inclusive of levity. Olivia Cole and Brenda Pressley are oh so comfortable with one another. Their maturity and mutual presence make it appear easily done. This is deceptive. At a recent matinee, for example, the two would return a few hours after curtain to once again charm a theater crowd: impressive.

Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years continues at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut through March 13th, 2016. For tickets, visit www.longwharf.org or call (203) 787-4282. The production resumes at Hartford Stage in Hartford, Connecticut, March 31 - April 24th. For tickets in that location, visit hartfordstage.org or call (860) 527-5151.


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