Goodman's powerful 'Having Our Say' looks back at massive changes
"Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" -- ½
At first glance, it seemed odd that the Goodman Theatre chose to revive "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" in its larger Albert Theatre space. Emily Mann's 1995 Broadway stage adaptation of the best-selling 1993 book employs just two actresses, so the Goodman's cozier Owen Theatre would have been a more intimate fit.
But this compelling true-life story of two African-American centenarians covers a vast sweep of history and comfortably inhabits the large canvas of the Albert stage. Still powerful and acutely timely, the play hammers home vital personal and political views on racism, feminism and education that are still being battled over in America today.
"Having Our Say" is told entirely from the perspective of the two unmarried Delaney sisters Bessie (1891-1995) and Sadie (1889-1999). Though the notion of listening to your elders go on and on about long-dead friends and relations might be anathema to some, Mann concisely and incisively conveys the ordinary and extraordinary life circumstances of these amazing women.
On this 1993 day in their comfortable suburban home in Mount Vernon, New York, retired dentist Bessie (Ella Joyce) and former schoolteacher Sadie (Marie Thomas) are planning an honorary birthday meal to commemorate their late father, Henry, who was born into slavery in 1858. The occasion naturally allows the sisters to reflect and share tidbits from their impressive family tree.
The sisters go into detail about the illegal interracial love match of their maternal grandparents. They point out how education proved to be invaluable for their parents and their eight other siblings.
Because the Delanys lived so long, it's startling to hear examples of American life before and after Jim Crow laws codified institutionalized racism into law. The sisters also touch on events of the 1990s, including the presidential ambitions of white supremacist David Duke (startling when considering how he was one of the earliest supporters of Donald Trump's presidential run).
Early on, Bessie is identified as the feistier and more outspoken sister, which leads in one instance to a harrowing incident following her indignant response to a drunken white Southerner in a train station. Meanwhile, Sadie is content to be the more accommodating sister, finding ways to win her battles through far less confrontational means.
Joyce and Thomas as the Delanys make for an entertaining double act, especially since they both have down the rhythms of master storytellers. Though Thomas was unsteady with her lines a couple of times on opening night, she soldiered on as if it was a memory lapse due to Sadie's advanced age.
Director Chuck Smith helps to imbue a welcome humanity to the performances, humorously seen in the still-present sisterly conflicts and resentments that occasionally arise when one sibling serves up a version of a story that slightly conflicts with the "official" version.
Goodman's "Having Our Say" is a handsome production, thanks to Linda Buchanan's detailed and rotating living room and kitchen sets. Buchanan also provides a great overhanging canvas of wallpaper and golden frames to allow for projection designer Mike Tutaj to share a wealth of historic photographs illustrating the many people and events in the Delany sisters' lives.
Goodman's exquisite revival is a reminder that those who have died are not completely forgotten as someone cherishes their memory. So thank the Goodman for theatrically bringing the Delaney sisters back, allowing their wealth of experiences to live on.
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Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday (also May 20, 22 and June 3), 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; through June 10
Running time: About 2 hours with intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: Some disturbing lynching stories and racial epithets, but largely for general audiences