“And, honey, I surely do love getting the last word. I’m having my say, giving my opinion. Lord, ain’t it good to be an American!“
— Bessie Delany, age 101, 1992
Asheville Community Theatre’s upcoming production of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years is thoughtfully written and expertly directed. And the two actresses playing the roles of the centenarian Delany sisters are absolute magic.
So will someone please tell local theater lovers why they have only two weekends in which to catch this marvelous production?
Having Our Say is a two-act theatrical adaptation of the 1993 book of the same name, co-authored by Sarah “Sadie” Delany, Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany and New York Times writer Amy Hill Hearth, who spent 18 months interviewing the sisters.
“Bessie and I have been together since time began … or so it seems,” begins Sadie Delany in the book. “Bessie is my little sister, only she’s not so little. She is 101 years old and I am 103.”
Sadie and Bessie were two of 10 children born to Henry Beard Delany — a former slave who became the first elected black Episcopalian bishop — and his wife, Nanny James Logan, a woman of mixed blood. The children “were every different shade,” recalls Bessie, “from nearly white to brown-sugar … and so what?”
They were raised in an idyllic, sheltered environment: the campus of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, founded in 1867 as a Negro college.
“Personally, I never had any desire to be white,” reveals Sadie, born in 1889. “I am absolutely comfortable with who I am.”
“It’s been a little harder for me,” admits Bessie, born in 1891, “partly because I’m darker than [Sadie] is, and the darker you are, honey, the harder it is. But it’s also been harder on me because I have a different personality than Sadie. She is a true Christian woman! I wish I were more like her, but I’m afraid I am a naughty little darkey! Ha ha! I know it’s not fashionable to use some of the words from my heyday, but that’s who I am!”
Beginning in the 1880s, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws that legally enforced segregation. As late as the 1960s, many areas still had separate “white” and “colored” drinking fountains, and blacks were forced to sit in the back of the bus.
And as the Delaney children got older, their overprotective parents could no longer hide them from the outside world, especially from the “Rebby boys” — Bessie’s term for white male racists. But even her lifelong rancor toward them has softened over time. “Once in a while, God sends a good white person my way, even to this day,” she goes on to say. “I think it’s God’s way of keeping me from becoming too mean.”
Joining a wave of other Southern blacks, most of the grown Delany children headed north. It was the 1920s, and they landed in the right place at the right time — New York City during the Harlem renaissance, which made the area a mecca for black writers, artists and musicians.
“As far as we were concerned,” the sisters concur, “Harlem was as close to Heaven as we were going to find on this Earth.”
“One of the happiest days of my life was back in 1920, when women got the right to vote,” remembers Bessie. “I was torn between two issues — colored and women’s rights. But it seemed to me that no matter how much I had to put up with as a woman, the bigger problem was being colored. People looked at me and the first thing they saw was Negro, not woman. So racial equality, as a cause, won in my heart.”
All the Delany children were college-educated professionals, a phenomenal accomplishment for the time. Following the mandate of their beloved Papa — “Your job is to help someone” — both women dedicated themselves to “helping professions.” Sadie was the first black high school teacher of “domestic science” in the New York public schools. And Bessie was the city’s second black female dentist.
In one of her most famous quotes, Bessie explains why she feels they both lived so long: “Honey, we never married. We never had husbands to worry us to death!”
During the ’50s, the sisters joined one of their brothers in the movement to integrate suburbia, spending the rest of their lives in a small house in Mt. Wilson, N. Y.
“I don’t think either Sadie or I had ever lived among so many white folks before,” recalls Bessie, “and it was a bit of a shock to us. Of course, we were a bit of a shock to them.“
In the play, Sadie and Bessie invite the audience to join them in an annual celebration — a birthday dinner for their father, who died in 1928. They revel in their early memories — like the time a thunderstorm shook their house, terrifying the whole family.
“When the storm was over, there was the most beautiful rainbow. Papa said, ‘Look, children, it is a gift from God’ … we ran outside to get a better look … we were certain God had hung it in the sky, just for us.”
Pamella O’Connor, in her Asheville Community Theatre directorial debut, has cleverly expanded the two-character play by creating a third character — American history itself, represented by old photos used in a wide-screen slide presentation. As the Delany sisters page through their family album, their memories take visual dimension on stage.
“Some of the images will be hopeful and positive and beautiful,” says O’Connor. “Others [like images of racial hatred] will be painful. They serve as a reminder to all of us where we’ve been and what we shouldn’t forget.”
But can a white director bring an accurate vision to a play about black women? “It’s a non-issue,” O’Connor believes. “Theater and art go beyond those parameters of racial differences. Our job as artists, as performers, is to transcend our individual lives and go to a new place together.“
Alisa Kuumba Zuwena, in her first ACT role, plays older sister Sadie. The actress/singer draws on personal pain to bond with her character.
“My mother was similar to Sadie’s mother,” Zuwena says. “She worked hard and her days were long, but she always had time for us children. I could really identify with Sadie’s monologue about being so dependent on her mother, even when she was an old woman herself. When my own mother died, it took me four years to get over it and stop crying. I didn’t realize how dependent I was on my mother until then.”
Veteran ACT actress Angela Jones has her first starring role as Bessie. “The biggest challenge for me,” she declares, “was learning all these lines — and getting in Bessie’s body, as the director says. My ex-husband told me: ‘Forget about learning the lines — feel Bessie’s spirit. Allow her spirit to be with you and her likeness will naturally come.’ He’s right. Bessie’s present with me. She tells me when I’m doing something wrong in the play.
“In one scene,” Jones explains, “Sadie is telling a story about something she did to me 90 years ago, and I was playing it like I was really mad. But Bessie’s spirit told me, ‘I loved my sister — I might have been perturbed at her, but not really angry at her.’ So now I play the scene like Bessie would have played it, not like Angela. When people come to see the play, they are going to be amazed at the transformation of Angela Jones to Bessie Delany!”
Why did ACT select Having Our Say to commemorate Black History Month?