Centenarian sisters accentuate the positive in ‘Having Our Say’

having our say review


Rosalyn Coleman, left, and Inga Ballard co-star in the George Street Playhouse production of “Having Our Say.”

We should all be lucky enough to grow old as gracefully as Sadie and Bessie Delaney — the two characters in Emily Mann’s 1995 play, “Having Our Say” — have. As depicted in the play’s current George Street Playhouse production at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, they are 103 and 101 years old, respectively, with no apparent physical or mental ailments. Their energy never flags; their voices are consistently loud and clear; they never have trouble recalling a name or date when telling a story. At one point, they dance with each other in the kitchen.

They also both have an extremely positive outlook on life, and have only good things to say about members of their large family.

Addressing the audience, as a whole, as if it represented a single visitor to their Mount Vernon, New York, home, Sadie and Bessie — played by Inga Ballard and Rosalyn Coleman, respectively, with Laiona Michelle directing — talk about their lives and times throughout the course of the play, as they prepare an elaborate meal meant to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of their late father.

They do have some harrowing tales to tell. Born in 1889 and 1891, respectively, and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina before relocating to New York, they have encountered plenty of racism and sexism, particularly in those early years. Bessie once, in fact, came close to being lynched, when she dared to insult a white man — a drunken lech — at a train station.

“We loved our country,” Bessie says, “even though it didn’t always love us back.”


Rosalyn Coleman in “Having Our Say.”

“Having Our Say” is based on the 1993 bestseller “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” an oral history of the sisters compiled by Amy Hill Hearth. A couple of years later, Mann adapted the book into this play, which ran on Broadway in 1995 and earned a Tony nomination for Best Play.

Sadie, a retired schoolteacher, and Bessie, a retired dentist, are depicted as having a close, symbiotic relationship. They seem to always know what the other is thinking; they often finish each other’s sentences, or simply say the same thing at the same time.

Yet they also are as different as any comedic odd couple you could name. Sadie is sweet and accommodating, Bessie is feisty and outspoken.

“If Sadie is molasses, then I am vinegar,” Bessie says. “Sadie is sugar, and I’m the spice.”

Some of the play’s funniest moments, indeed, happen when Bessie, behind Sadie’s back, rolls her eyes or otherwise shows her exasperation with Sadie. But there is no major conflict between the two. They are content with each other, and themselves.

And, somehow, the world: They’re able to laugh, for instance, about the fact that when they went to the park as children, there were separate water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored.” Bessie, ever the rebel, drank from the “White” one, anyway. “It tasted just the same!,” she recalls, focusing on the absurdity of the discrimination, not the hurt.

Nor do not have any regrets about not having married any of their many suitors. They’ve managed to live past 100, Bessie says, because “we never had husbands to worry us to death!”


Rosalyn Coleman, left, and Inga Ballard in “Having Our Say.”

Another wry twist comes when Bessie, who believes she is psychic about the future, rejects Sadie’s assertion that there will be a Black president at some point. “White people would rather die,” she says, adding that she believes a white woman will become president before a Black man or woman.

With the play being set in the ’90s, there are references to David Duke, and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy (Hill “was telling the truth … I know a rascal when I see one,” says Bessie), and Dan Quayle.

“If that boy was colored, he’d be washing dishes somewhere,” Bessie says.

(Yes, I realize I keep quoting Bessie and not Sadie, but she’s sharp and funny, and the one with most of the memorable lines.)

There is a moment of real angst, toward the end of the play, when Bessie talks about the “shock” of turning 100. It was “the worst birthday of my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

But just a moment later, she is able to shrug it off, saying “Turning 101 was not so bad.”

For an interview with director Laiona Michelle, click HERE.

The George Street Playhouse will present “Having Our Say” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 17. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.


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