Dramatizing the oral history of two 100 year-old African-American women can be a daunting task. But when the individuals are the Delaney sisters, who led such interesting and compelling lives, the undertaking is not too difficult. The show, Having Our Say, by the playwright Emily Mann is an amusing, engaging, and intelligent drama. It traces the lives of Sadie and Bessie Delaney from their formative years in the late 1800’s through the racism and segregation of the Jim Crow South to New York City and the Harlem Renaissance and, finally, their move to the white suburbs of Mt. Vernon, New York in the late 1950’s. These were well-educated and activist women. Sadie was the first African-American woman to teach in an all-white New York high school. Bessie became a licensed dentist. What makes the production so striking are the stories. They can be playful, heartbreaking, and riveting. Sometimes their memory-laden tales can become pedestrian and unentertaining but, for the most part, the audience is treated to a chronicling of personal history as well as yarns about such historical figures as Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The two actresses playing the sisters are formidable and no-nonsense. They are the very essence of oil and vinegar, ying and yang. But they make the century old relationship work, despite their differences and temperments. Oliva Cole is wonderful as the easygoing, soft-spoken Sadie. A self-confessed momma’s girl, Ms. Cole layers her character with emotional depth. She conveys a relaxed and unhurried charm in her performance. You believe the actress has topped the century mark. Brenda Pressley is feisty and on-target as the sharp-tongued, irascible Bessie. She convincingly portrays a woman that has experienced untold struggles throughout her long life. My only criticism is I didn’t get the feel from Ms. Pressley’s performance that this was a 100 year-old woman.
The set design by Alexis Distler transports the audience into a well-kept, slightly faded, multi-room home interior. Even though the set it is rather large for a two character play, the well-appointed living room, beautifully set dining room, and orderly and spic and span kitchen add an understated grandeur to the show.
Director Jade King Carroll manages to give the production movement and flow, even as much of the two-hour play has the performers sitting and chatting. She has enriched the actresses’ characters with a profusion of charming mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that adds depth to their portrayal of the women.
Having Our Say, at Hartford Stage through April 24th.