YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


'Having Our Say' Takes a Warm, Fuzzy Journey


The Delany sisters didn't just live more than 100 years, they lived remarkable lives--lives that touched an astonishing span of American history. You can hear all about it in "Having Our Say," Emily Mann's formulaic adaptation of their best-selling memoir. The play opened the Mark Taper Forum's 30th season Wednesday night.

Mann packs so much homespun wisdom into 2 1/2 hours that you may leave the theater logy from bromide overdose. There is something for everyone in the warm sentiments threaded throughout the play like a well-made and comfortable quilt. Racism is bad, greed is bad, loving and honoring your parents is good. The play is structured somewhat like a sitcom--with applause lines and laugh lines expertly built in at every turn. The Delanys' extraordinary qualities do manage to shine through all this thick goodness, but their appeal is diminished by too much pandering.

At the time of the play, early 1993, Sadie, the sweeter of the sisters, is 103; Bessie, the tougher, is 101. These women know each other better than "any two people on Earth" and they systematically finish each other's sentences. As Sadie, Frances Foster does a fair amount of mugging, both facial and vocal, to indicate her character's sugary nature. She is balanced by the more rooted performance of Lynne Thigpen as Bessie. In Thigpen's able hands, a slow burn from Bessie sets right any piece of nonsense the world may throw at her, and that includes a near-lynching in Georgia, when Bessie rebuffed the leering advances of a drunk white man.

The sisters refer to themselves as "Negro" or "colored," and as "maiden ladies." Do not call them old maids. These are women whose wisdom you do not question. First directed by Mann at Princeton's McCarter Theatre and then on Broadway in 1995, the play won many fans and very few detractors. It is here overseen by Walter Dallas, who faithfully re-creates the appropriate respectful mood at the Taper.

As with a successful sitcom, the play's formula works its wiles. Handkerchiefs come out regularly, and the applause is like clockwork, particularly for public-service announcements, such as when Bessie stares down the audience and says, "Negroes, more than anyone, need to make sure they vote, to make themselves heard in the system." Sadie adds, "We've come a long, long way in a short, short time since slavery days, and there's no use in quitting now."

Unobjectionable and noble sentiments punctuate the play. It is a testament to Emily Mann's savvy that some audience members even applaud sentiments they may not endorse, such as when Bessie says, "Today they use this term 'African American.' It wouldn't occur to us to use that. We prefer to think of ourselves as Americans, that's all!" A pause is helpfully built into the text, so that Sadie can get a serving platter and Bessie the serving spoons while people clap.

The sisters are setting the table for the birthday dinner they make every year in remembrance of their father, the Rev. Henry Beard Delany, who had been born a slave and became the first Negro Episcopal bishop. He and his wife, Nanny James Logan, had 10 children. The family was full of firsts. In New York, Sadie was "the first colored teacher" to teach domestic science on the high school level. Bessie was the "only colored woman" in her class at Columbia in 1918, and became the second black female dentist in New York. Her Harlem office was a meeting place for thinkers and artists. W.E.B. Du Bois was a regular there. She was so wellknown that postcards addressed only with "Dr. Bessie, New York City" arrived at her door.

The sisters tell us the story of their family as if we are old friends. As they take out photographs from boxes or down from shelves, we see those family photos projected above the walls of their genteel home (welldesigned by Edward E. Haynes Jr.) they keep so neatly in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Those photos are full of mystery and wonder, and they touch places underneath the treacly sentiments of the play.

In the end, you may find you love the Delany sisters despite, not because of, "Having Our Say."

* "Having Our Say," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 27. $31-$37. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Frances Foster: Sadie

Lynne Thigpen: Bessie

A Center Theatre Group production in association with Camille O. Cosby and Judith Rutherford James. By Emily Mann. Adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Walter Dallas. Sets by Edward E. Haynes Jr. Costumes Dana R. Woods. Lighting by D Martyn. Original music by Baikida Carroll. Projection design by Marc Rosenthal. Production stage manager by James T. McDermott.

Los Angeles Times Articles