on this story
Having Our Say
Jan. 25, 31 and Feb. 1 at 8 p.m.; Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 at 2 p.m.
$9-$21. Call 877-868-8710 (toll free) for reservations.
The Delany sisters open some eyes in Having Our Say
by Paige M. Travis
For the record, I have an embarrassingly muddled grasp of history. I don't like being ignorant (or maybe my offense is mere forgetfulness), but there are so many historical events and developmentsAmerican and worldly about which I have only the vaguest notions. Note: this is in no way the fault of the Knox County public school system, which required me to take multiple history classes in middle and high school. I probably made good grades in these classes, but I can't remember what I learned in them to save my life or win at Trivial Pursuit.
That said, the Cumberland County Playhouse joint production of Having Our Say at the Bijou Theatre was a real learning experience for me. The play, based on the best-selling biography written by Sadie and Bessie Delany, is a lesson in 100 years of American history told from the perspective of two black women. If you're white, unless you took a Black Women writers class in college, you may never have heard many stories told from this perspective. Their stories are long overdue, both on a national scale and here on Knoxville stages.
Lazora Jones and Leila Boyd portray Dr. Bessie and Miss Sadie, who are 101 and 103 years old, respectively, when they tell their life stories in the setting of their comfortable Mount Vernon, N.Y., home. The actresses are clearly nowhere near 100 years old, but they move slowly and deliberately as the aged do. Their greatest talent is creating an enjoyable sisterly rapport. They finish each other's sentences, bicker over the tiniest details and fawn over memories in a photo album. At one point, the women are cackling over an old joke and they touch hands over the coffee table. This small detail is so sisterly, so intimate, that it speaks volumes of their lifetime together as sisters and roommates.
The Delanys' stories are fascinating, both because they lived through some tumultuous times in American history and because they are such lively characters. Their personalitiesBessie's fiery drive and Sadie's sweetnessbrought the book to life and are the engine behind this play, which has no real narrative structure: just the lives of these two sisters and the winding family tree their stories create. These women have an enviable grasp of their personal history; they know where they come from and who they come from. That's what makes their story invaluable as a portrait of history: its individuality as well as its universality. I can't know what it was like to be a black woman trying to get a job in New York City in the 1920s. But the Delanys open a window into their livesand into American historythat gives me a peek.
I wonder at how the Delanys' feelings about white people reflect the state of race relations in the past and the present. "If it weren't for those kind white missionaries at St. Aug's, and my mother's white relatives," says Bessie, "I would have hated all white people. Every last one." Having experienced decades of government-supported racism, personal threats and all manner of inhumane treatment, I can understand how Bessie Delany would feel this way. In fact, it helps me understand why many black people may hold this opinion today. The Jim Crow laws established between 1869 and 1914 legalized the segregation of blacks from whites in restaurants, public transportation and elsewhere. "We knew we were already second-class citizens," Sadie says, "but those Jim Crow laws set it in stone." Imagine where we'd be today if those laws had never been made in the first place, only to be unmade in the 1960s.
As uncomfortable as I was with the sweeping negative statements made about "white people," the Delanys certainly made me think about perspective. Bessie and Sadie's storiesabout protesting a revival screening of Birth of a Nation in 1925 with Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, driving Booker T. Washington around Raleigh, and hanging out with Cab Callowaymade me want to hear more stories like this, more unfamiliar voices sharing history from another point of view. Just seeing two black actresses (though not Knoxville actresses) on the stage of the Bijou Theatre is notably rare , but why is that? I don't see half the plays that are produced in this city, but the ones I do see aren't telling the stories of black Americans; they aren't even featuring more than a few black cast members. Why? For every The Odd Couple or madcap English comedy produced in this town, can't we get one A Raisin in the Sun or Fences?
One of theater's most ambitious and admirable goals is to educate and broaden our perspective. Perhaps the Cumberland County Playhouse's production of Having Our Say can serve as a precedent to further integrate theater-going audiences and casts, and to enlighten us by telling stories in voices we don't often get to hear.
January 24, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 4
© 2002 Metro Pulse