At one point in the play “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” Sarah “Sadie” Delany proclaims, “Honey, life is short.” That adage is especially potent coming from centenarians, as Sadie and her sister Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany both were.
Born in the late 19th century, the daughters of a former slave in Raleigh, N.C., the Delany sisters’ story was the subject of a New York Times article. That was followed by a best-selling book documented from their oral history by Amy Hill Hearth. Shortly after, Emily Mann adapted it to a play that reached Broadway in 1995, and a TV movie followed in 1999.
The play has been staged several times locally, the latest at Jubilee Theatre, directed by William (Bill) Earl Ray, Jubilee’s artistic director. What’s interesting about his fine production is that he imported the actresses playing the sisters — Perri Gaffney as Sadie and Marjorie Johnson as Bessie — from the East Coast, something Jubilee hasn’t done often.
The gamble pays off. Gaffney and Johnson have long acting résumés from professional theaters around the country, and ease into a tight bond in this production. In Ray’s gentle, unrushed production, they make the audience feel like guests in their cozy home as they recount their story.
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They had siblings, but the sisters never married — a fact that they laughingly allege contributed to their long lives. Their former slave father educated himself and became politically active, and encouraged his children to do the same. In the first act, the sisters discuss their family tree (with projections of ancestors show on Bryan Wofford’s detailed set of a kitchen, dining area and family area).
In the second half, they discuss living in 1920s Harlem alongside luminaries like James Weldon Johnson and Alberta Hunter; of living through Jim Crow and civil rights, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and other important figures; and the 1980s. They both died in the 1990s (Bessie in 1995; and Sadie in 1999, almost making it to a third century). What would they have thought had they lived to see the first black president, and racial turmoil still not resolved?
Bessie, a science teacher, is cantankerous and easily provoked to action (“more W.E.B. DuBois”), while dentist Sadie is more laid back (“more Booker T. Washington”). What makes their story engaging — aside from being witnesses to 20th-century history — is that they tell it while setting up for a dinner. In each scene, the actors effortlessly engage in something different to prepare: Setting the table (including folding napkins and slipping on napkin rings), chopping vegetables, decorating the ham with pineapple slices and cherries, cooking the chicken, etc.
By the end, the audience is hungry — not just for food, but for the stories engagingly told with spunk by Gaffney and Johnson. The Delany sisters had few, if any, regrets.
Ticket buyers to this production won’t have any, either. It’s one of Jubilee’s finest productions in a while.
Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years