Actresses don’t usually like to reveal their ages, but we can assume that Avery Sommers and Karen Stephens are younger than 103 and 101, the ages they play in Having Our Say, the oral biographies of Sadie and Bessie Delany at Primal Forces theater in Boca Raton, beginning Jan. 11.
The Delanys were two African-American sisters whose century-long lives span the post-slavery period through to the civil rights era and beyond. Their story first came to light in a 1991 article in The New York Times by Amy Hill Hearth, who later expanded it into a book. In 1995, Emily Mann adapted it for the stage, taking it to Broadway and later on tour.
Although she has never seen it performed, Having Our Say has long been on the bucket list of Primal Forces’ resident director Genie Croft. She almost staged it at Delray Beach’s Arts Garage three seasons ago, just as the theater program there was folding. Croft had already cast Sommers and Stephens and has kept them in mind for the roles ever since.
Stephens had a feeling that she would eventually do the play. “You don’t say no to Genie,” she says with a hearty laugh.
Asked how she plays 100, Stephens says, “The thing is not to play 100, but to be 100. To understand the things that they have dealt with over their 100 years. If I can let those things settle in my spirit and in my soul, then I don’t have to act it.
“It’s about being authentic. Having the audience believe that I am this person. Playing a 101-year-old woman is a stretch as far as age, but I don’t believe that’s a hindrance if your approach to the character is authentic.”
Having grown up in North Carolina, Sadie and Bessie moved to Harlem in the mid-1910s, to avoid the South’s restrictive Jim Crow laws. With the support and encouragement of their parents, they each earned advanced degrees at a time that such an achievement was rare for women, let alone women of color.
Sadie went into education, earning a master’s degree and becoming the first African-American allowed to teach domestic science at the high school level in the New York City public schools. Bessie graduated from Columbia University’s school of dental and oral surgery, becoming only the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State.
Despite their professional achievements, “They went up against a lot of racism and sexism,” says Sommers, who notes that the sisters handled such impediments differently. “Like their father figure, I’m more likely to say, ‘Oh, it’s OK. Let it slide.’ Sadie is very much Avery in a lot of ways. She’s the kind of person who will acquiesce to her baby sister who has a strong opinion about everything. I do too, but I learned to let things ride, it’s OK. Whereas Karen doesn’t let things slide at all. That is really who Bessie is. She goes right to the heart of the matter.
“Bessie was more like her mother. She would go to the wall for what she believed. Bessie had a strong sense of right and wrong,” explains Stephens. “She feels righteous about equality and treating people like human beings. Right out of the womb, she was probably kicking up a storm. Whenever Bessie saw injustice, she would confront it. She was willing to die for the things she believed in. Even at 100 years of age, she says, ‘And I still feel that way.’ Whereas Sadie is the more humble, silent type, Bessie is a firebrand.”
Croft has worked with both actresses before and had a distinct vision of which sister each would play. “They have very, very different personalities and they’re big sister, little sister. I just thought that Karen is absolutely Bessie. I just knew it would fit Karen very well,” she says. “I worked with Avery on ‘The Devil’s Music’” — a one-woman show about blues singer Bessie Smith — “so I knew she had the depth and range for Sadie.”
Of the two characters, Croft says, “Their personalities are very distinct; however, they’re two sides of the same coin. They share so much.”
For both actresses, their performances in Having Our Say draws on recollections of their relatives. “I lived with my great-grandmother, who died when I was 13,” says Stephens. “She was a woman of the South, so a lot of these women’s history is my history. So I feel that link there and I call on it.”
Adds Sommers, “I’ve got one aunt who, in her speech patterns, a little halting, I hope to incorporate that into my performance. I hope it adds to the authenticity.”
The Delany sisters’ lives form a powerful reminder that little has changed for minority women. “These two sisters lived through some horrific times, and how come it’s really no different in today’s world?” asks Croft. “Why hasn’t it changed?”
“I just think it’s really interesting that not much has changed since these women were born, came of age, lived their lives, grew old and passed away,” says Stephens. “Racism is alive and well. Jim Crow has reared its ugly head again. Sexism is just as prevalent as it ever was. We’re still fighting the same battles. You can’t give up hope, but sometimes it’s hard not to.”
“I think it’s an incredibly important piece of theater, yet it is so rarely produced,” says Croft. “Because this play deals so blatantly and so forcefully with racism and sexism, it has a new timeliness.”
“I think it will touch people’s hearts,” says Sommers of the play. “And they’ll have their eyes opened about the state of America, hearing about the kinds of things that happened in this country and are still happening.”
“I believe we need to be reminded of our history every now and then,” agrees Stephens. “Because we had a black president, we think we are so past the issues that are dealt with in this play. But we are reminded that we’re not. It’s still very much on the table. And every now and then, we need to be jolted awake and reminded that we still have work to do.”
HAVING OUR SAY, Primal Forces at Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Jan. 11-Feb. 3. $30 (Front row seats, add $5). Call 866-811-4111 or visit primalforces.com.