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It does bear repeating

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Because it bears repeating and seems like the right time to hear the play again, New Village Arts (NVA) cofounder and Artistic Director Kristianne Kurner programmed Emily Mann’s “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” as the last production in NVA’s 16th season.

(l to r) Milena (Sellers) Phillips and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson during a scene in NVA’s “Having Our Say” (Photo by Rich Soublet)

Presented at La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, the autobiographical work was adapted by Emily Mann from the book by Sarah L. (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. At the time Mann was artistic director of the McCarter Theatre, where the play premiered in 1995.

The NVA cast is extraordinary, with well-known area actors Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson (recently Moxie Theatre’s “Brownsville Song b side for Tray” and “’night Mother” at ion theatre) as Bessie, the more opinionated and intractable of the two, and Milena (Sellers) Phillips (most recently in Cygnet’s August Wilson Repertory of “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II”) as Sadie, the more accepting and non-confrontational.

Directed by Melissa Coleman-Reed, the production continues through June 11 and is not to be missed.

(l to r) Phillips and Thompson dance in their kitchen. (Photo by Rich Soublet)

Christopher Scott Murillo’s set appears as if one could move right into the Delany sisters’ Mount Vernon, New York, home circa, 1991. Neither woman ever married. Both were college educated and broke numerous barriers by becoming independent and competent. Bessie became a dentist and Sadie a teacher. They were born into a large family of achieving children fathered by a former slave and raised to be frugal and to save. As soon as they were able, they bought property and lived together most of their lives.

“Having Our Say” relates the Delany sisters’ history, their family history, and when it comes right down to it, the history of “negroes” in America. Sadie prefers that term and eschews “African-American,” saying no one is more American than they, despite their tough road to achievement.

The discrimination they and others faced and still face is the part of the story that most bears repeating.

Parts of the work are gently amusing now, especially their prediction that it would be a long time before there was a black president.

Most enjoyable is observing the genuine affection between these two fine actors, the hand-holding, the physical assistance they give to each other, their amazing cooking style, as they prepare a celebratory dinner for everyone present; plus the way they unfold the lace tablecloth and set the table, the way they seem not like actors pretending to be old, but the way they inhabit old.

It could be anyone’s family home and by the end of the evening it feels like it is one’s own.

Coleman-Reed’s meticulous direction adds to the savory feast, as do her costumes, Melanie Chen’s sound and projections design, A.J. Paulin’s lighting design, and the amazing properties work by Angelica Ynfante.

—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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