By: Dale King Contributing Writer
Centenarian sisters Sadie (Avery Sommers) and Bessie Delany (Karen Stephens) will quickly and emphatically tell you they prefer the term “maiden ladies” to “old maids.” The siblings never married, which Bessie jokingly cites as the reason for their longevity.
The life lessons they learned in their combined 200-plus years are the subject of Emily Mann’s 1995 play, Having our Say, a delightful, entertaining and frank production that concludes its crowd-pleasing run Feb. 3 at the Sol Theatre in Boca Raton.
The show, created by the Primal Forces theater company and directed by Genie Croft, brings together two veteran actresses to re-enact the true story of two extraordinary black sisters who recount sometimes comical, sometimes harrowing tales of their upbringing; meeting Paul Robeson and Eleanor Roosevelt, living through Harlem’s Golden Age and enduring Jim Crow laws that denigrated blacks.
These ladies, children of a slave, each lived well past 100 years of age. Pressed with a work ethic by their father, Bessie graduated from Columbia University and became a dentist. Sadie worked as a school teacher and later administrator. “I was the first colored teacher in the New York City school system,” Bessie says proudly in the play.
This show is not simply a must-see, but a must-hear as the sisters talk of their lives in elucidating ways. They make no judgments and offer no excuses. They could easily have coined the phrase, “Tell it like it is.”
Actually, both actresses said that their characters are much like themselves. Stephens, most recently seen in Michael McKeever’s Dracula at Zoetic Stage and On Golden Pond at Palm Beach Dramaworks, said she is “very politically oriented and involved with social issues, notably injustice.” In Having our Say, Bessie becomes an activist and frequently joins in protests.
By comparison, Sadie is the quiet sister, the one who clung to her mother and, as a result, the sibling who took mom’s death more seriously. Even in the play, as the sisters prepare a big dinner – ham and turkey with all the fixin’s – they leave an empty chair at the table to honor mom.
Sommers, a Broadway veteran with charismatic stage presence and powerhouse voice, noted she tends be quiet and calm, like Sadie. The actress is known for her sold-out, one-woman performance of I Love Being Here with You at the Kravis and her Carbonell Award-winning performance as Bessie Smith in The Devil’s Music at the Arts Garage in Delray Beach.
Having our Say not only deliberates on the relationship of Sadie and Bessie to the world, but also to each other. How, they wonder, could they have remained together, with Bessie so “outspoken” and Sadie as “a mama’s child?”
“It’s a wonder she wasn’t lynched,” Sadie comments categorically about her sis.
Clearly, the pair also complained they had a tough go with whites. At one point, Bessie pipes up: “If I had a pet buzzard, I’d treat it better than white folk treated me.”
The sisters said they were among the first to be ogled by lecherous men. One time, Bessie shot back at a rubbernecker: “I ain’t your slice of heaven. Put your eyes back in your head.”
But in the end, it’s family that tops all. The sisters sadly recall how death began to take their brothers and mother. Talk of mom’s death takes place during a poignant, tearful scene.
And, as the stage lights fade, Sadie and Bessie bid the audience farewell – in the same amiable way they welcomed them at the opening.
Having our Say will be presented Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Sol Theatre, 3333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. For tickets, visit www.primalforces.com.