Sadie and Bessie Delany lived to be 109 and 104 respectively. In itself, that’s a considerable achievement—yet it’s only the beginning for these accomplished (and, in Emily Mann’s appealing if formulaic adaptation of their memoir) almost implausibly delightful sisters.
Bessie Delany became a dentist; Sadie a high school teacher. They were black (or, as Bessie, preferred, “colored”) and raised mostly in the south, and in this context, their successes represented many firsts. By the time the Delany sisters were professionally established and living in Harlem, they were already celebrated in their community—they met Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marian Anderson. And, as you would expect for people who live over a century, they also endured their share of heartbreak, watching as their large family gradually grew smaller. (This is, of course, part of the human condition that knows no color barrier.)
In terms of the racial prejudice they often encountered, Bessie—an admirer of W.E.B. Du Bois—was more inclined to be a firebrand; Sadie was the quieter one. As seen here, though, in Mary B. Robinson’s production, the overriding mood is cozy. Having Our Say feels designed to make us smile and sniffle. Folk wisdom is dispensed with a Hallmark twinkle.
Mostly, it works. As pure entertainment, it’s easy to enjoy Having Our Say. For me, the chief pleasure in PTC’s production was watching two actors—Perri Gaffney as Sadie, Cherene Snow as Bessie—who, though obviously decades younger than their characters, demonstrate considerable skill and a winning sense of interplay. Gaffney in particular has a poignant, seemingly effortless grace.
I’m also sure some audiences will enjoy Having Our Say for more than its cunning theatricality. They will also take comfort in the hopeful message of lives lived—against fearsome odds—with honor, compassion, and above all, dignity.
But I saw this play a day after the President of the United States commemorated Black History Month in a speech of jaw-dropping ignorance and insensitivity—and that’s only the tip of the iceberg of our reality. Faced with the ugly glare of what’s around us every day, I wonder if many viewers won’t feel, as I did, that the atmosphere of rectitude in Having Our Say is inadequate to the moment, more like a fairy tale. It belongs—as surely as the Delanys themselves—to another century.
Having Our Say runs through February 19. For more information, visit the Philadelphia Theatre Company website.