Veteran Actress Portrays a Feisty Centenarian

Mary Alice earns a Tony nomination for her role as Bessie in 'Having Our Say'

MARY ALICE leans forward and scrunches up her face into a delightfully comic mug: eyes wide, mouth open, and shoulders in a shrug. ''What is this going to be? Is this going to work?'' The veteran actress laughs now at her early concerns about ''Having Our Say,'' now a solid Broadway hit and nominated this week for a Tony Award, American theater's most prestigious honor. Miss Alice herself has been nominated for a Tony for best actress in a play. (The winners will be announced on June 4.)

Alice is no stranger to such recognition. She won a Tony Award in 1987 for August Wilson's ''Fences'' and an Emmy for her work in the television series ''I'll Fly Away.''

Her concerns about ''Having Our Say'' were understandable. Last year, playwright Emily Mann read the bestselling book of the same title, which tells the life stories of two centenarian sisters, Sarah (called Sadie) and Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany. They live together in active retirement in Mount Vernon, N.Y., after enjoying successful careers as the first African-American domestic-science teacher in New York City's school system (in 1930), and one of Harlem's most respected dentists (in 1925).

Their lives cover the sweep of American history over the past century, chronicling black America from the inside, and revealing a deeply personal, moving account of two spirited, graceful, and successful women's lives. But turning such a story into a vivid theatrical experience was another matter.

Along with acclaimed actress Gloria Foster, Alice participated in several readings to help develop the piece, but in the early stages ''it was still basically the book, and not what you would call dialogue,'' Alice says.

Playwright Mann slowly fashioned a story, using the device of a visitor coming to the ladies' home and hearing their reminiscences while they prepare and serve dinner. ''We didn't know until the first preview audience'' that it was going to work, she says. ''That was the missing part that wasn't there during rehearsals. What we needed was the real 'guest.' ''

Mann, who also directed, used her position as artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., to present the piece there before its Broadway transfer in March. This style, dramatizing real people's lives drawn from their own words, has been perfected by Mann in previous works such as ''Annulla: An Autobiography'' dealing with a Holocaust survivor, and ''Execution of Justice,'' about the murder of San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk.

''I thought of her as a character in a play, which is how I approach all of my work,'' Alice explains. ''I didn't consciously think of Dr. Delany as being 101. I did have to physically change my rhythm, my body language'' to create the appearance of the centenarian. And after a half-hour of makeup and the addition of a wig, she emerges as Bessie.

''Sadie quotes something that their mother says about Bessie, that she was quick to anger and very outspoken. That even from a child, she was very feisty.'' A mischieveous grin crosses Alice's face as she admits, ''they're both wonderful people, but that was the role I felt attracted to.''

Other parts she has been drawn to have become established symbols of her career -- most notably the painfully deceived wife in ''Fences'' and the quirky, superstitious custodian of the housekeeper Lily's daughter in ''I'll Fly Away.''

Alice's early training came at the Negro Ensemble Company, headed by founder Douglas Turner Ward, in a second-floor loft on New York's Lower East Side in the late 1960s. ''I always say 'fortunately' when I talk about [that] time,''she says. ''I was put into Lloyd Richards's advanced acting class,'' and her first teacher went on to direct her in ''Fences'' years later.

''It was a very exciting time back then. I learned that, as an actor, you had to play yourself as a saxophonist plays his instrument -- your instrument being your body, your mind, your imagination, and whatever you are capable of feeling and thinking and being. And even though a role may involve something you haven't experienced, if it is part of human behavior, you're capable of it. It's your responsibility as an actor to reveal some aspect of the human condition.''

''Having Our Say'' reveals the broadest range of experiences, as the sisters Bessie and Sadie live through the emergence of Jim Crow laws in the South, ''separate but equal'' public-accommodations legislation, the suffragist movement, the triumph of Rosa Parks's defiance on a segregated bus, four wars, and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The play's structure is held together by Mann's decision to emphasize not the historical symbolism but the women's lives.

''I approached it not in terms of telling 100 years of history, or even the history of this family,'' Alice says. ''I was really concerned about this particular life, this particular woman.'' But performing a three-hour, two-character play ''is very demanding. I'm a middle-aged woman, and if I were doing a comparable piece 15 or 20 years ago, it would be different. And also, mentally and emotionally dealing with 100 years eight times a week,'' she chuckles, ''my subconscious does not know that I am not 101 years old!''

Even the simple mechanics of the play's action require great concentration. The activity appears deceptively straightforward: The sisters invite a guest for a visit, and while there, they prepare and serve their father's favorite dinner, to celebrate his birthday.

''Emily was specific about what she wanted. It changed, of course, as we rehearsed, because we had to coordinate it all. One moment, for instance, I talk about having entered Columbia, the dental program. I get the chicken, and I take it out of the paper, and I put the paper away, and I take the pan -- and it took me forever to coordinate all that, so that by the time I say 'Are you kidding' I'm back where I need to be, putting the chicken down.''

This newest role comes at a time when the actress confides that she's winding down her 27-year career. Asked if she foresees an autobiography, she laughs heartily. ''I'm so tired of these people writing about their lives. They're not worth the money -- and besides, they're not telling everything!'' Reflecting on future acting work, she says ''the only things I do now are things I'm really attracted to, and that's why I'm doing this. There's a challenge here.''

* A review of 'Having Our Say' appeared in the Monitor's April 18 issue.

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