REVIEW: HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS’ FIRST 100 YEARS at Goodman Theatre

REVIEW: HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS’ FIRST 100 YEARS at Goodman Theatre

Pictured (l-r): Ella Joyce and Marie Thomas. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

By Naima Dawson

America has made a habit of sweeping its dirty little secrets of breeding inequality and bigotry under the rug. For centuries, numerous leaders of the free world have disregarded their role in constructing a culture that separates and divides a people. This country has spun its hand in creating lifelong hardships for Blacks while minimizing the Black culture’s contribution to the foundation of America. It is vital to preserve accurate accounts of historical facts. It is critical to document the living voices of those who can provide us with an accurate portrayal of history.

The Goodman Theater brings us documented, living voices filled with rich history in the revival of Emily Mann’s HAVING OUR SAY: THE DELANY SISTERS’ FIRST 100 YEARS. Directed by Chuck Smith, this production takes the audience on a historic voyage through the lives of the precious Delany Sisters, who garnered fame after reaching 100 years of age as progressive Black women in America.

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, played by Ella Joyce, is the fiery, outspoken baby sister who speaks her mind. She was born in 1891 and died in 1995, at age 104. Bessie was the second African American woman to work as a dentist in New York City and never missed a moment to stand-up for herself and others. Sarah Louise “Sadie” Delany, played by Marie Thomas, was born in 1889 and died in 1999 and was the first African American permitted to teach high school domestic science in an all-White school in New York City.

The Delany’s mother worked at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, North Carolina, as a teacher and administrator. Their father, who was born a slave, became the country’s first African American Episcopal bishop and vice principal of St. Augustine College.

Their mother was an “issue free” Negro–one who has some Black ancestry and some White heritage. The Delany sisters’ great-grandmother was a White woman, the wife of a slave owner who had relations with a slave and got pregnant while her husband was away. History rarely speaks about the many unsavory acts of White slave-owning women.

Ella Joyce and Marie Thomas bring such life to this play. If you’ve seen an interview with the Delany Sisters, you will quickly note how well both actresses bring out the unique traits of each sister. Joyce has classic comedic timing, something I have always loved about her. Her candid portrayal of the feisty, opinionated Bessie is quite engaging, while Thomas delivers an enthralling, sweet and innocent Sadie.

What is most compelling about the Delany Sister’s story is their ability to retell a 100 years’ worth of history from a Black woman’s experience. From the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance. From World War I to the Gulf War. From Jim Crow Laws to the Civil Rights Movement, to the Rodney King riots. From the Women’s Suffrage Movement to Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. The Delany sisters have been a part of all this and more.

We learn how they had to go from being able to freely drink out of their local park’s water fountain to being subjected to drinking out the color side of the water fountain. Bessie, being the defiant sister, took the fountain’s tin drinking cup and got water from the White side and noted out loud that it tastes the same as the Colored side. Often children are smart like that until adults taint their views.

Maimouna Youssef says that “being a woman is like being Black twice.” I remember an interviewer asking the Delaney Sisters which is harder, “being a woman or being Black,” “Being Black,” they said. Black people have always found a way to survive amid the many obstacles and ugliness placed before us. We find a way to shine even when left to rot in darkness, as we are a resilient people. The sisters tell the audience “life is short, and it’s up to you to make it sweet.” Some of us somehow find that sweet spot in life, even when America laces our lips with bitterness.

There is nothing to not love about this play, from the grand revolving stage to the re-encounter of history known and unknown. It is like sitting in your grandmother’s living room as she paints with her words. You will laugh and reflect on a sister’s bond, love, and a wealth of surviving and living.

HAVING OUR SAY runs through June 10th. For more information visit goodmantheatre.org.

About author

Naima Dawson

Naima Dawson is a published author, Chicago playwright, and professor. Her career accomplishments cover more than 20 years in Arts Entertainment. Her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and her Master of Education from DePaul University solidifies her ability to bridge the two worlds between Arts and Education. She is the writer and producer of Your Call! Late Night Improv & Sketch Comedy for Grown Folks, as seen in production at the Apollo Theater and The Mercury Theater.

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