The Delany sisters were two special old ladies. Highly educated and politically passionate, these women were born to an ex-slave in the late 1800s and lived to bear witness to an entire century of American history, from the tragedy of Jim Crow laws to the comedy of Dan Quayle's vice presidency. In 1993 they and Amy Hill Hearth shaped their extraordinary memories into the book Having Our Say, The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years. And there is perhaps no better way to celebrate Black History Month than to see Emily Mann's adaptation of their story, now playing at The Ensemble Theatre.
Mann's script turns the Delanys' tale into a homey visit. The two sisters speak directly to the audience, inviting us to tea, then supper, during the course of an evening. It is their beloved late father's birthday, and they are in the middle of preparing his favorite meal of ham, candied sweet potatoes, cauliflower and buttery pound cake. As they hobble around the yellow kitchen, their hands busily chopping and sifting and stirring, they tell their story, beginning with their mother's and father's births.
Truth be told, the Delanys led a fairly protected life. Their father became the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church and rubbed elbows such dignitaries as W.E.B. Du Bois. Their mother drank tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, while the sisters themselves graduated from Columbia University; Bessie became a dentist, Sadie a teacher. Such happy circumstances don't make for exciting theater, but the story these women tell is surprisingly compelling.
Part of what makes this quiet play work is James Thomas's handsome, brown-and-butter-colored set, full of Early American furniture and frumpy knickknacks that get to the essence of the puritanical, middle-class, rock-solid American values that shaped the sisters' lives. Director Marsha Jackson-Randolph, the theater's new producing artistic director, has managed to keep the pace lively while allowing the stories to unfold with homespun tenderness. And the quirky relationship between the sisters is expertly depicted by two strong performers. Sadie, played by Shirley Whitmore, is a gentle "mama's girl" whose patient, thoughtful circumspection is the perfect foil to the quick-tempered and feisty Bessie, brought to life by Dionne Hemphill. Bessie's got an opinion on just about everything and isn't afraid to voice it. These sisters are so close they finish each other's sentences; each also enjoys dishing the dirt on the other -- not that there's much to dish. Between them, the worst incident occurred in 1925 when Bessie inadvertently landed some friends in the pokey after encouraging them to protest a screening of Birth of a Nation at New York City's Capitol Theater.
Still, you don't live past 100 without seeing a bit of the world, and when you're as smart as these women so clearly were -- both died in the 1990s -- you're going to have an interesting spin on it. There's little history here that most self-respecting American adults don't already know, but a class full of eighth-graders could learn a lot from these sisters.
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