Philadelphia Theatre Company presents Emily Mann’s ‘Having Our Say’

Genuine steel magnolias

Another day, another atrocity emanating from the White House. Two weeks into Donald Trump's administration, you may well wonder: Is there no antidote for our new president’s seemingly insatiable appetite for vindictive chaos? I think I’ve found it: Spend an evening in the company of two charming, determined African-American sisters, the subjects of Emily Mann's Having Our Say, at Philadelphia Theatre Company. For more than a century the Delany sisters endured much worse than Trump without sacrificing either their principles or their gentle good humor.  

Gaffney (left), Snow: Actresses as indefatigable as their characters. (Photo by Mark Garvin)

Sadie and Bessie Delany, real-life daughters of a former slave, were born in North Carolina in 1889 and 1891 respectively, before even the advent of segregation. Despite the formidable racial and sexist obstacles they encountered, both sisters quietly but persistently established professional careers where few black women had dared to tread: Bessie was a dentist, Sarah the first black teacher of domestic science in New York City’s public schools.

"Naughty little darky"

By the time we meet them, it’s 1993 and the two centenarians are living alone in a previously all-white neighborhood (which they integrated) in suburban Mount Vernon, New York, maintaining an immaculate household by themselves and bolstering each other’s spirits. The absence of husbands or children in their lives is both a curse (“Lord, send us someone new!” Bessie exclaims) and a blessing (Bessie again: “We never had husbands to worry us to death”). In any case, there’s just enough personality divergence between the sisters to keep life interesting. As Bessie, the more politically active sister, puts it, “Sadie is a true Christian woman. I’m just a naughty little darky.”       

Having Our Say, first produced in 1995 when the Delany sisters were still alive, repackages a 1993 oral history and subsequent 1999 television documentary. It’s all talk and no action — the bane of Donald Trump! — save for the sisters’ putterings around their house. Unlike, say, Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner With André — in which a long dinner conversation between two men evolves into an exploration of uncharted regions of their psyches — here nothing changes between opening curtain and final blackout; everything Bessie and Sadie know of themselves is in the past.  

Instead, Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of this two-character play draws its appeal from the unpretentious chemistry between Perri Gaffney and Cherene Snow as well as from the genuine drama of the life stories they recount, from the Jim Crow South to the more genteel bigotry they encountered in New York. And in at least one respect, Gaffney and Snow prove themselves as indefatigable as their characters: They spend nearly two hours onstage with barely a pause in dialogue.

Shades of Little Big Man

Of course, the centenarian survivor is a familiar literary device for looking back on, say, America’s Indian wars (Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man) or the Civil War (the 1989 Allan Gurganus novel Oldest Confederate Widow Tells All). But Jack Crabb and Lucy Marsden were fictitious characters; the Delany sisters are real. Any way you slice it, an evening with these gracious ladies becomes an uplifting paean to the power of persistence and kindness in the face of cruelty.

“It’s a wonder that some of us haven’t stopped trying altogether,” Bessie remarks, recalling a prejudiced dental professor at Columbia who tried to undermine her ambitions. Indeed it is. In its unprepossessing way, Having Our Say provides a timely reminder that the effort can be worthwhile, even against seemingly impossible odds.     

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