Monday, May 28, 2018
Aside from the nine hour train trip back from Chicago to Galesburg, our delightful sojourn with the Delaney sisters at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago Thursday afternoon was well worth the time spent. Director Chuck Smith proved once again he Is a master purveyor of the Black Experience.
Having Our Say: The Delaney Sisters First Hundred Years is a true story and was adapted from an interview and book in the nineties. The play by Emily Mann appeared on Broadway in 1995. Those inimitable sisters have now passed away, but their message remains both poignant and pertinent. Their lives covered the minority experience all the way from their slave born father to the end of the 20th century. Each maiden sister had a singular personality and profession. Sadie was a school teacher and Bessie a Dentist. As they share their lives, you cannot help but admire their intellectual capacity, fortitude, humor, and above all their essential goodness in the face of two centuries of oppression.
Ella Joyce (Bessie) and Marie Thomas (Sadie) are just plain superlative as they putter about their immaculate home preparing dinner (for us the audience). Director Smith has full control of each minute domestic chore and has devised an efficient way to share the sister’s family background. A few family photos on the set suggest many more and they are depicted by a series of golden frames that creep up a wall behind the household setting. Several of the frames are used to show projections of African American history as drawn from a family album that the sisters look at and refer to. The empty frames also gave every audience member an opportunity to fill in photos from their own past.
The set itself is a tour de force of realism built upon a large turntable that moves the action smoothly from living room to dining room and kitchen. The overall palette (both the set and the lighting) emphasizes restful blue and peach tones. This is a calm, spotless, organized, and under control space that seems somehow isolated from the furor of slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, protests, and all of the manifest horrors of the society’s struggle with racism. It emphasizes that these extraordinary women made lives anchored by civility, kindness, and gentle humor in spite of what was going on outside of their home. The key turning point for the Delaney sisters was the securing of the vote for women in the 1920’s. According to director Smith, this was one of his main reasons for remounting the show today. He and they point to the ballot as the final arbiter. If you do not use it you are selling out yourself and the cause.
Having Our Say is not an enduring masterpiece for the ages though it may be more profound than it appears. As a reminder that two fellow humans can endure a century of oppression and still retain a sense of protest, civility, and humor the performance is definitely worth seeing.