When I hear the expression "Black History Month" I can't help but believe that it really should be a month for everyone no matter their race. We can all learn something from someone else's experience. Theater has always been a place to teach us while entertaining and that is exactly what 4th Wall Theatre is doing in their current production of Having Our Say - the beautiful adaption by Emily Mann of the best-selling memoir of two African-American sisters.
Sarah (Sadie) Delany and her sister Annie Elizabeth (Bessie) lived together in a home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. The sisters shared wonderful stories in their memoir and the play is such a great way to learn from women who have lived an entire century as Sadie is 103 and her baby sister is 101. The show takes places in 1992 as the two celebrate their father's birthday.
While the two finish each other's sentences and share a connection that only siblings can have, Bessie points out their differences early in the production. She says she has never worried about Sadie getting into heaven, (as she is 'Sweet Sister Sadie') but has questions about herself. Sadie is kind and gracious while Bessie is loud and sarcastic. Even to the audience who acts as the guest in their home while the two go about regular activities, the warmth and humility of both characters come alive.
Two New Jersey staples in the theater scene portray the sisters. Mimi Frances plays Sadie and has been seen in shows all over the state as well as doing cabaret in numerous New York City spots and performed with a choral at Carnegie Hall. Gwen Ricks-Spencer as Bessie is one of the founders of 4th Wall Theatre, but has performed with 12 Miles West and the Negro Ensemble Company. Both women bring such unique qualities to these amazing women and yet seem as if they could actually be sisters. When I asked them how they bonded, they said they would sit and discuss their own families in order to present one on stage. And that they do!
Frances has a lilt to her voice that pulls you into the sweetness that is Sadie. She is calming and soothing when she engages us in a story; some heartwarming and some that make you feel uncomfortable about our country's history. Ricks-Spencer's Bessie is bold and bright and has a fire in her belly each time she recalls a memory. Both women move as slow as molasses, but never stop talking and sharing. I'm amazed at the ability of two actors to memorize all of those lines as neither leave the stage. The two give story after story, sometimes cutting off the other and these actresses do it with such realness that we forget we are watching a play. Instead we are sitting with two learned women who are empowering us with life lessons and food for the soul. They handle both humor and poignancy in such a beautiful way; I was moved thinking of what all these two real life sisters went through. I applaud the actresses both in tackling this challenging piece and for making it appear so easy. If one ever does flub a line, we would never know as it seems to be written in the script that these women over 100 years old are sometimes searching for the right word to convey the precise meaning to the audience/guests in their home.
The show touches on so many topics from family members born into slavery, the importance of education, to the social history of Jim Crow laws and graphic accounts of lynchings. Yet we never feel preached at by the sisters. Their conversation flows naturally, as if we had just stopped by their comfortable middle class home. But make no mistake; they have strong feelings and opinions on many things. Bessie does not like to refer to herself as African-American as she's prefers to think of herself as "American, that's all." And she doesn't call herself black - she says she is brown. She discusses a home-made pecking order based on skin shade within the black community and believes "the darker you are, the harder it is."
Sadie was twenty-six and Bessie twenty-four when they first went to New York City and eventually all of the Delaney children ended up moving there from North Carolina. It opened a brand new world and the oldest daughter who seems to believe that positivity can prevail became the first black teacher to teach domestic science on the high school level. The amount of achievements of these women is inspiring.