The Story Of The Delany Sisters Is Back
In Having Our Say, the incredible lives of two pioneering siblings are showcased at the Goodman Theatre
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THEY expressly described themselves as “maiden ladies,” never married but too feisty, too confident, too engaging and too involved to fit the traditional label of “old maids.” They were the Delany sisters––centenarians Sarah and Bessie––and their story is not only one that recounts history but also is one about their beautiful life together as well.
Under the direction of Chuck Smith, the production, Having Our Say (at the Goodman Theatre through June 10), features Ella Joyce (the wife on the TV series "Roc") and Marie Thomas as the seasoned ladies whose 1993 book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years led to a Broadway production in 1995 and subsequent presentations throughout the country over the years.
At the Goodman, Joyce (as Bessie) and Thomas (as Sarah) invite the audience into their home as if it were time for tea and storytelling. For the next two hours, they go through a wide range of subjects that shaped the lives of these incredible women––lynching, Jim Crow, education, institutionalized segregation, longevity and their choice to continue preparing their deceased father’s favorite meal on his birthday (chicken, rice and gravy, sweet potatoes, ambrosia, pound cake.) They even share the time when as 5- and 7-year-olds growing up in Raleigh, N.C., a trip to the park introduced them to riding in the back of the trolley and later that day being greeted by “white” and “colored” signs at the water fountains. However, Bessie, the more adventurous and outspoken of the two, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see what “white” water tasted like.
The Delanys, daughters of parents who believed in motivating their children to succeed against the odds, adhered to their father’s suggestion that their “mission is to help somebody.” At one time both were teachers before moving to New York City during Harlem’s heyday in the 1920s and ‘30s. They continued their education, with Bessie becoming the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York City and Sarah (often called Sadie) taught home economics and became the first appointed black person to teach home economics at the high school level in New York City.
At the time, still living together in a small apartment, Bessie and Sarah wrapped their arms around much of what New York had to offer, socializing with many of the most noted black personalities of that era, including Cab Calloway, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Lena Horne, Alberta Hunter and poet James Weldon Johnson. The sisters themselves had gained favorable reputations and had become known for living their lives to help others. For instance, Bessie, who also had become an influential activist, was famous in Harlem for never turning away a needy patient, whether they could pay or not.
On stage, Joyce and Thomas are convincing as centenarians in their mannerisms, speech and movement. Both actresses are comfortable on the sets created by Linda Buchanan, and the projection of Delany family photographs, enhancing the dialogue between the two, complement their captivating stories.
Before they died at ages 104 and 109, Bessie and Sarah often talked about why they lived so long and primarily attributed their longevity to a simple but routine lifestyle. Their daily activities included performing yoga exercises each morning except Sunday; prayer sessions each morning and night; a swallow of cod liver oil and a clove of chopped garlic each morning; no drinking, no smoking, no chewing tobacco; and, maybe most important, the enjoyment of each other’s company. And what about men? Bessie said matter-of-factly: “We never had husbands to worry us to death.”
Apparently, that combination worked for them. For more than 100 years, the Delany sisters lived and let live and stuck to the belief that perhaps many of us should embrace: “Life is short; it’s up to you to make it sweet!"
For more information and tickets ($10 to $73), go to www.goodmantheatre.org. The production schedule is as follows: Tuesdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
In Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, the often talked-about sisters are portrayed by actresses Ella Joyce (left) and Marie Thomas.
The Delany sisters lived together for the duration on their lives and attributed their longevity to a simple lifestyle and enjoying each other's company.