Centenarians Sadie (Marie Thomas) and Bessie Delany (Ella Joyce) will be quick to tell you that they prefer the term "maiden ladies" to "old maids." The sisters never married, which Bessie jokingly cites as the reason for their longevity. The life lessons that they learned in their combined 200-plus years are the subject of Emily Mann's 1995 play, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, now playing at the Goodman Theatre.
Both born in the late 19th century and living to the 1990s, the sisters shared front row seats to an evolving America. Their father, born into slavery, was the first African-American Episcopal bishop, whose ambition and perseverance carried on to Sadie and Bessie, who broke barriers of their own. The sisters lived through the Jim Crow South before moving north, living in New York during the storied Harlem Renaissance and witnessing the civil rights movement. Sadie earned a master's from Pratt Institute and taught domestic science, and Bessie attended Columbia University's dental school, setting up a practice in Harlem where she rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
The highs and lows of the Delany sisters' lives are related with warmth and sparkling wit by Joyce and Thomas. Though the years have joined them together to the point of often speaking in tandem, the contrasts between the sisters' personalities are the most striking. Sadie, the elder by two years, was a shy and subdued girl devoted to her mother. Bessie was a great beauty in her youth, with a willful spirit and a quick temper. "It's a wonder she wasn't lynched!" clucks Sadie, recounting a harrowing run-in with white southerners in Bessie's youth. Joyce has the showier role, drawing waves of laughter as the bombastic Bessie, and Thomas gives a tender performance as the gentle Sadie, who carries a century of grief and gratitude on her shoulders.
Having Our Say is a rare bird — a wholesome, family-friendly play about people beyond moral reproach. The Delany sisters are upstanding citizens, compassionate Christians, and dutiful daughters who turn the other cheek and rise above those who would do them harm. The ladies were raised with a certain sense of decorum, and they get political only in broad strokes (Dr. Martin Luther King was an angel, Dan Quayle a buffoon). In these candid times, that reticence may come across as toothless, but it feels organic to the Delanys' generation.
Director Chuck Smith crafts a lively staging that is welcoming from the opening moments, during which the sisters invite the audience to share a pot of tea in their living room. Linda Buchanan's green-hued set is filled with sentimental touches, memories of lives well-lived, and is topped with broad frames for Mike Tutaj's projections.
There are no flashbacks or reenactments in Mann's script, which is drawn from interviews conducted by reporter Amy Hill Hearth when the sisters were 100 and 102. The play is simple and pleasant, a memoir mixed with a lesson, perfect for families or young students learning about American history.