Goodman Theatre veteran Resident Director Chuck Smith's revival of Emily Mann's Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, is the triumph of the Chicago theatrical season. The play, starring Ella Joyce (Goodman's Jeff Award-winning Crumbs from the Table of Joy) as Bessie. and Marie Thomas (Broadway's Don't Bother Me I Can't Cope, TVs L.A.Law, Amen, Knots Landing) as Sadie, is an historical time-travelogue, narrated by the two sisters who speak to the audience from a magical set by 30 year Goodman veteran Set Designer Linda Buchanan. It recreates the living room and kitchen of the Delaney's Mount Vernon, N.Y. home. The back story of how they managed to purchase the home in 1957 in the then-segregated lily-white suburb is one of the play's many narrational gems. Goodman's veteran Costume Designer Birgit Rattenborg Wise also deserves praise for her spot-on designs as does the creative work of Lighting Designer John Culbert and Sound Designer Ray Nardelli. The artful use of historic photographs projected on screens above and around the stage, by Projection Designer Mike Tutaj, further enhances and advances the story-telling.
The history books don't really tell you a lot about what life was really like for blacks who lived in the south in the years after the Civil War and the end of slavery and about the early years of the black migration to the north's urban centers. We hear the names of W.E.B. Du Bois, Bookler T. Washington, Mary McCleod Bethune, and others, but the Delany sister's acccount, as authored by Amy Hill Hearth, who did the original article on the Delany sisters in the New York Times in 1991 and co-authored the subsequent book which became the foundation for Emily Mann's stage adaptation, gives verbal flesh and blood and a vivid pictorial image of those turbulent years. In those times, America saw the emergence of the black middle class and the resulting backlash of Jim Crow.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Delany's New York Times bestselling memoir, and as co-author Hearth and playwright Mann have pointed out in numerous interviews, its a pity how little has changed in terms of race relations. Particularly striking is the fact that Bessie and Sadie, were the daughters of a father who was raised as a slave, and a mixed-racial mother who was the daughter of a free African American woman, and a father who was a white Virginia farmer. The two lived a common-law marriage in separate houses for fifty years because mixed-racial marriages were outlawed in the entire country.
The Delany sisters lived a privileged life as children, even by today's standards. Although they grew up in North Caroline, they were raised on the campus of St. Augustine's College in Raleigh, North Carolina where their father, the first African American Episcopal bishop, was the vice principal and their mother worked as a matron. The sisters then moved to New York as young adults to pursue higher education and careers; Bessie to become only the second black woman to become licensed to practice dentistry in New York City, and Sadie to become a school teacher, the first to be certified to teach high school-level domestic science (at a white school, no less) also in New York City.