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THEATER REVIEW Having Our Say
by Karen Topham
2018-05-23

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Playwright: Ellen Mann, adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth

At: Goodman Theatre, 170 W. Dearborn St. Tickets: $35-75; GoodmanTheatre.org; 312-443-3800. Runs through: June 19

My mother always said that there is a lot we can learn from our elders, and an evening spent with "the Delany Sisters," a pair of centenarians whose life story is the subject of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, now at the Goodman Theatre, certainly illustrates the point. Ella Joyce and Marie Thomas play Bessie and Sadie Delany, respectively, two sisters who tell of their century as Black women in America.

Framed as the gregarious sisters visiting with a new friend ( Bessie speaks of how bored she gets talking to people she's known forever—at least the ones who are still alive ), the play spends time with them just chatting in their Mount Vernon living room as well as preparing a meal in their kitchen: normal activities that, we can easily imagine, fill their days. But it is the substance of the conversation that attracted director Chuck Smith to the project, the stories of life in the post-Civil War days and the memories of life in the Jazz Age and under Jim Crow. Though these women were, by their own admission, exceptionally lucky for African-Americans in the 20th century, spending a couple of hours with the Delanys is like getting a lesson on Black history from the most personal teachers in the world.

Joyce and Thomas are perfect as the sisters. Their every interaction renders the idea that they have known each other for a century entirely believable. They finish each other's sentences. They pass narratives off so easily that you know they have told these stories a billion times. They instinctively comfort each other as they need it. But these are not merely interchangeable parts. Joyce, as Bessie, is taller and built solidly. She moves and speaks deliberately and slowly, whereas the more wiry Thomas throws her whole body into her movement and all of her energy into her narratives. They are both remarkable performances.

Remarkable, too, is Linda Buchanan's set, which takes full advantage of the Goodman's turntable and features picture frames and projected images by Mike Tutaj of the sisters' family photos and films and stills from the eras of which they speak. All aspects of this show shine, but that doesn't go far enough. SMith has made the show into an entirely personal experience, far more like visiting with a couple of favorite aunts than watching a play at all. From the start, when the sisters invite us into their home and their lives, to the end, when they say good night to us as if we were good friends, Smith has crafted a remarkably intimate production on the Albert stage. The two women led fulfilling, impressive lives, and in Having Our Say we get to share their century of life, if only for two hours. My mother would say that it's two hours very well spent, and I'd agree with her. If you've never had the pleasure of getting to know the Delanys, don't miss this opportunity.


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