Sitting in on Having Our Say is like visiting Grandma for muffins and tea -- only in this case, there are two grandmas, and they're going to pull your ear about, oh, a century or so of "Negro history" in America. It's a folksy evening -- if you sit in the front row, Sadie and Bessie will serve you actual tea and cakes -- and the things the Delany sisters experienced between roughly 1890 and 1990 are truly remarkable.
The two sisters, both over a century old, relate stories about the deaths in their family, going back a couple of generations. (There were, it turns out, a lot of Delanys.) They were remarkable people: the father rose from slavery to become a bishop; the mother held the family together by sheer force of will; Sadie became the only Black teacher at her New York City school; and Bessie -- usually the only Black woman in the very white, male world of academia -- succeeded in becoming the most beloved dentist in Harlem. And this was during the Harlem Renaissance. Those Delanys accomplished a lot, confronted a lot.
Much of the problem with Having Our Say, however, is the authors' bullheaded determination to tell us all about it. All about it. The evening slogs through the muddy history of race relations in America, with Sarah and Elizabeth Delany and playwright Emily Mann intent on taking us through every decade of the 20th century.
Bryan Jackson's direction, unfortunately, sometimes contributes to the lack of tension. Many monologues are recollected by one sister while the other stays in the background, fussing over food or tableware and muttering "Amens." Jackson settles too much into the routine of bringing the sister who's holding forth front and center. Nothing wrong with that, used sparingly -- after all, it's the traditional position of strength on any stage. But the production overdoes the move. I started groaning inwardly every time one of the sisters would wipe her hands on her apron and begin toddling over to center stage.
Which is not to say that some of the speeches aren't gripping, because they are. It was quiet in the mostly white house when A'dell McAlpine, as Bessie, stood up, looked us in the eye and related the horrific details of lynchings and near-lynchings. She simmers over the maddening injustice of Jim Crow so that we do, too. Why should white trash be favored over two such accomplished and persevering women as these two?
Much of the production's energy -- both in the script and in the playing -- derives from the conflict between accommodating Sadie (Liz McAlpine) and rebellious Bessie. As we might expect from two women who have lived through so much, their icons for accommodation and defiance are taken from an older generation. Sadie, willing to get along to get along, hearkens to Booker T. Washington; Bessie, ever the rebel, felt more akin to W.E.B. Du Bois. The more recent icons -- Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X -- are treated briefly, almost dismissively. The entire postwar era is glossed over, even though, in the 1960s, the two sisters were only in their seventies.
Can't fault the women or the script for not discussing what they don't want to discuss. But the McAlpines can be faulted for not being fully in command of their lines. Usually lapses and momentary confusions would be faults. But in a play about citizens who are extremely senior, they sometimes work out as advantages: the forgetfulness and momentary confusions of elderly women. Still, scenes have to be played to make an emotional point, not simply to be gotten through.
In a show so heavy on narrative, Jackson and his cast of two could have done more to make the narratives magnetic. Even a judicious use of props and special lighting wouldn't be amiss, even in such a naturalistic play. The McAlpines (a real-life mother and daughter) need to overcome the script's problem of telling, telling, always telling, without ever showing or dramatizing.
Much of what the Delany sisters have to say convinces us that race tension is harmful, even self-defeating and ultimately silly. Still, at the performance I attended, a group of African-American women arrived just before curtain time, and proceeded to sit well off to stage right: White folks in two-thirds of the theater, Black folks off on the side. A small detail, probably unintentional, with no great significance -- but it reminded me of my days at college in the African-American theme house, supposedly devoted to meaningful dialogue among those of different ethnic (and often economic) backgrounds. And the Black students sat by themselves, and there was an unwritten rule, and the barriers between us still stood.
The Delanys have much to say about Blacks in America. But if we are to get up out of our seats and actually do something about our race problem, it'll take more than just relating a collection of family stories.