With presentational monologue plays – either one-person shows or sweet duets like Emily Mann’s Having Our Say – the question usually comes to mind, “Who are these characters talking to?”
But in the case of Sadie and Bessie Delany, two centenarian African-American sisters who break the theatrical fourth wall from the start of their rambling, but endearing verbal tour of their histories, just pull up a chair, lend an ear and embrace these two characters who brim with life.
At Primal Forces in Boca Raton, that embrace comes easily, thanks to a couple of South Florida’s most personable performers – Avery Sommers as benign, elder sister Sadie, and Karen Stephens as her younger sibling, firebrand Bessie. Although these actresses have not appeared onstage together for three decades, you would never know it from their slyly symbiotic work here. With the aid of director Genie Croft, their physical movements are completely in synch and, verbally, they cannot help but finish each other’s sentences.
Adapting journalist Amy Hill Hearth’s best-selling memoir of the Delany sisters, playwright Mann did not feel the need to shape the evening much with dramatic emphases. Perhaps the unseen audience is intended to be their interviewer, for the stories pour out of the Delanys with ease, if a structural flatness.
The year is 1993. Sadie is 103, Bessie is 101. As they recall their memories of lynchings, the advent of Jim Crow laws and segregation, they encompass the dark history of race in this nation. But in the next breath, they are just as likely to dredge up thoughts of cherished encounters with Eleanor Roosevelt and Paul Robeson or the pride they derived from their professional lives. As they do so, these self-described “maiden ladies” shuffle around the kitchen of their Mount Vernon home, industriously preparing a dinner to celebrate their late father’s birthday.
While it is hard to gauge how much the color of their skin held the Delanys back, they were born into relative privilege and enjoyed the advantages of advanced education. With their eight brothers and sisters, they grew up on the campus of the all-black St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, N.C., where their father was both a minister and an instructor. Although he was born into slavery, their father would become the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church.
Despite hurdles of opportunity and finances, both of the Delanys attended college and earned advanced degrees. Sadie, who received a master’s degree from Columbia University, was the first black teacher of domestic science in New York City high schools. Bessie, a graduate of the Columbia Dental School, became one of only two black women at the time to be accredited as a dentist in New York.
As Sadie, Sommers is resolutely non-confrontational, quite the opposite of Stevens’s Bessie. As the latter puts it, “If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar.” Her pungent side is illustrated by an anecdote describing how she was infuriated by D.W. Griffith’s racially insensitive film Birth of a Nation and organized a demonstration against its New York screening in 1925. Despite her umbrage, she arrived late to the protest, only to see her colleagues arrested and hauled away. Stevens in particular captures her character’s age and demeanor with a tired shuffle of her feet and a twinkle in her eye.
In sharp contrast to the abstract, minimal set for Primal Forces’ previous production, Having Our Say calls for a detailed design for the Delanys’ residence – the sitting room, dining room and kitchen – provided by Nicole DiCicco. A center stage window/projection screen conjures up images of the individuals and incidents being spoken about during the evening.
Understandably, the play only captures a fraction of the Delanys’ stories related in the book of interviews. Still, as they spin tales of their extended lives and prepare dinner before our eyes, Having Our Say is unquestionably a rich, full meal.
HAVING OUR SAY, Primal Forces, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Feb. 3, $30. 866-811-4111 or visit primalforces.com.