The Venerable Delany Sisters Have Their Say on Broadway
NEW YORK — Having Our Say. At the Booth Theatre.
The Delany sisters are two black centenarians who have become quite well known to the American public, thanks to the hugely successful memoir, ''Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.'' Their story now comes to the stage, courtesy of writer-director Emily Mann, and they should be having their say on Broadway for quite a while.
Mann specializes in this sort of nonfiction theater, in which she not so much writes plays as builds theatrical collages. (Her ''Execution of Justice'' was composed entirely of excerpts from the trial of San Francisco City Councilman Dan White for the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk.) Adapting the Delany sisters' book, she has basically created a dramatic reading of excerpts, but with actresses of the caliber of Gloria Foster and Mary Alice, the results are sometimes thrilling.
The sisters lived through 100 years of American history and witnessed an epochal era in black-white relations. Living together -- neither married -- they were successful professionals: Sadie (played by Foster) was a schoolteacher, the first black social-sciences teacher in a New York City high school. Bessie was a dentist with a thriving Harlem practice.
In personality, these sisters are quite different: Sadie is ''sugar'' and Bessie is ''spice.'' Sadie is quiet, dignified, refined; Bessie is sassy and blunt. Mary Alice, as Bessie, runs away with the evening, garnering huge laughs with her character's orneriness and plain speaking. But Foster is no less powerful, investing her characterization with a quiet dignity that is wonderfully moving. These are two of our finest actresses, and the play gives them their best showcase ever.
Still, as wise, warm, and illuminating as the words of the Delany sisters are, one wishes Mann had actually written a play about them rather than to have used a tired theatrical concept in which the audience is treated as a houseguest. The evening is little more than a lecture, albeit one the audience reacts to with great enthusiasm: It was almost like a revival meeting, with numerous shouts of ''amen.'' When the actresses announced (in character) their advanced ages, the audience cheered, as if the real Delany sisters were on stage.
There is also a stilted quality to the piece; the actresses, for the most part, simply stand and talk, although occasionally there is some action such as puttering around the kitchen or peeling oranges. The relentlessly declamatory style of the oration, particularly from Bessie, also proves wearying. And although much of what they have to say is worthwhile, they are also prone to such platitudes as ''Life is short and it's up to you to make it sweet.''
Huge audience response is garnered by such things as the sisters theorizing that their unmarried status is responsible for their longevity, or that the average person can go far if he or she is white.
Broadway's now ubiquitous screen projections make a major contribution to the set, with numerous photos of the real Delanys and their family, as well as illuminating scenes from the historical periods being discussed.
Ultimately, it is the story and the women themselves that are tremendously moving and life-affirming; just to have anything like this show on Broadway in today's superficial climate is a rare and positive thing. To have it enacted by such wonderful performers is an added benefit.
For all its flaws, ''Having Our Say'' displays a humanity that has all but vanished from our stages.