‘Having Our Say’ revisits 20th century through eyes of two sisters who lived through it



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

Think of a time when a grandparent shared a story about their life. Remember how captivated you were to hear that firsthand account? That’s what the characters of centenarian sisters Sarah “Sadie” Louise Delany and Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany do during the play “Having Our Say,” taking the audience on a fascinating journey through their lives and the corresponding 100 years of American history.

“Their life spanned the entire 20th century,” says Laiona Michelle, director of the production that the George Street Playhouse is presenting at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Dec. 17. “So we are covering an enormous amount of history, told through their lived experiences … We’re talking about World War I, (World War) II, the Great Depression, Prohibition, women’s rights, the Civil Rights Movement — so much that they’re able to pull up and have a real, visceral reaction to, being that they were African American women. It’s pretty remarkable.”

Sadie and Bessie lived from 1889 to 1999 and from 1891 to 1995, respectively. Since reporter Amy Hill Hearth introduced people to them with a 1991 article for The New York Times, their story has been retold in several mediums. Two years later, Hearth wrote a best-selling book about the sisters. In 1995, playwright Emily Mann adapted the book for the Broadway stage and in 1999, CBS produced a television film.

In George Street’s two-hour (with intermission) production, the sisters are played by Inga Ballard (Sadie) and Rosalyn Coleman (Bessie).

“Having Our Say” director Laiona Michelle.

“It’s not too long of a piece,” says Michelle. “It moves very quickly, surprisingly so. You’ve got these two very seasoned characters onstage and you would think, ‘Oh, it’s gonna feel very slow.’ Not at all. In fact, they have a lot of spirit.”

The sisters led a very healthy life, doing yoga, taking vitamins, going on walks and eating a clove of garlic every day. The play is set in their Mount Vernon, New York, home on their late father’s birthday. Over the course of a day, they prepare a meal and talk to each other. (There’s a working kitchen onstage.) “You watch the ladies have tea (and) actually prepare the food,” says Michelle, “They’re making macaroni and cheese, a ham, roasting a chicken. Then they go into dessert and they’re pulling out photo albums.

“By the time this evening is complete … you have had the opportunity to have learned about all of their family members and everything they have experienced in the span of their lives.”

When you live for more than 100 years, there is plenty to reflect on. Sadie and Bessie’s father was born into slavery. The sisters were raised in North Carolina and had eight siblings. Eventually, they moved to New York and both attended Columbia University. Sadie earned a master’s degree in education and Bessie earned a dental degree. Both sisters never married or had children.

Michelle says they “really became best friends. In fact, when I dig into the research, looking at how they dressed and how they spoke, they were kind of twin-like. in a sense. They oftentimes completed each other’s sentences when they spoke. They shared everything together. And so there’s a very loving spirit surrounded by this play.”

They were also very different. Bessie was referred to as a “feelings child, which basically meant that she was highly emotional,” says Michelle, “whereas Sadie was what you would call a mama’s child. She was soft-spoken. She was more agreeable. So I think it’s very exciting to see two different energies of these loving sisters interact with each other (onstage) with two very different points of views.”

The cover of “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” the 1993 book written by the sisters with Amy Hill Hearth.

Michelle conducted several interviews with Mann. “She’s such a generous woman with her time and her resources,” Michelle says. “I feel like I’m really blessed to know her on a personal level, because a lot of my research came from her lips to my ear, versus just reading the play. To sit next to Emily and talk with her about her experiences … I’ve been able to carry that into the rehearsal room and it’s only deepened the work with the actresses and the designers.”

Michelle uses phrases like “testimonial-style theater,” “oral history” and “communal theater” to describe the style of this play. “You’re hearing these stories told through their lens, but it’ll feel like you’re going deep into memory, like there’s a table full of people there,” she says. “It’s a shared experience and, to me, that’s very exciting. It makes it feel very immersive.”

Through their storytelling, the Delany sisters paint pictures of dark passages throughout American history, including slavery, the Jim Crow era and lynching. “What I enjoy about this play is that they give you the truth and they give it to you so plainly,” says Michelle. “Then they can go to the next chapter and tell you something so light and beautiful with so much humor. So their perspective of what they’ve experienced brings you on a roller coaster of emotions throughout the piece.”

Michelle explains that reading about history and experiencing it through oral storytelling have different impacts. “I’m talking for myself as a black woman: Being in the classroom as a little girl, oftentimes those history books would paint a picture that I couldn’t really identify with,” she says. “It was because my ancestors weren’t at the table when those books were being written. So to have American history told through these two women who actually walked the walk and talked the talk … it’s refreshing.”

In addition to reflecting on their century of life, the sisters also look to the future. At one point in the show, it is said that there never will be a Black president. “To look at where we are today, I think it offers so much optimism in our country,” says Michelle. “And to me, that makes it a very hopeful piece as well.”

This play will lead George Street Playhouse into its 50th year of staging theater. The theater was founded in 1974 and started out in a repurposed supermarket before moving into a YMCA building. Now, its home is a state-of-the-art theater.

“We are still standing,” says Michelle. “There are so many theaters that didn’t make it through the times, especially after COVID, so this feels tremendous for us to be doing culturally rich programming and to also have a platform to ‘have our say’ with this piece in particular.”

Laiona Michelle with pianist Mark Fifer in “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical,” in 2019.

Michelle came to George Street as an actress in the 2018 play “American Hero.” Then, artistic director David Saint gave her show “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical,” which she wrote and starred in, a slot in the 2019 season. “That was the gift that changed my life as an artist,” says Michelle. “Before, I was an actress doing regional theater, TV and film. But now, I was stepping across the table to be a creative, and he trusted me in that seat.”

She thinks audiences of all ages will feel the impact of “Having Our Say.” “The show reminds us of our values as human beings, and I think that when people leave the theater, they’re going to have deeper conversations about what it is to be an American, what it is to be a good neighbor. I think when theater does that, it is doing its job.”

Michelle says that her favorite line from the play comes from Sadie Delany: “Life is short. It’s up to you to make it sweet.”

“I put that on the top of my script,” says Michelle. “It’s so great because it anchors you before you even get started. You know, we like to think that we’re doing hard work when we’re creating art because we’re pouring ourselves all the way into it. But you gotta remember to continue to laugh, to continue to be in the room and be pleasant and kind — and make sure that leads before anything else.”

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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