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Having Our Say

By Josephine Yun | Posted 11/27/2002

Having Our Say

Emily Mann

Everyone loves a good story, and if you were at Arena Playhouse last weekend, there were plenty to hear. The Arena Players production of Having Our Say--lifted from the best-selling book of the same name, subtitled The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years--is a fascinating slew of detailed, daring vignettes that comprised the cusp of Sarah "Sadie" and Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany's century-long lives.

Sweet sister Sadie (Hilda Peacock) and taller, younger, spunkier sister Bessie (Corlis Hayes) reminisce from their home in Mount Vernon, N.Y., whisking you back to times when no one but "white people, Negroes, and Indians" lived in their home state of North Carolina, renting an apartment at Seventh Avenue and 145th Street in Harlem cost $9 a month, and Jim Crow was ludicrous but the law. Once, after telling a stinking, drunk white man to buzz off, Bessie fled a lynch mob.

The sisters give unabashedly honest, humorous takes on everything from sex and sexism to labels (they prefer being called brown or colored, not African-American or black) and voting ("If you don't vote, you don't have the right to complain," Bessie declares, "and I sure don't want to give up my right to complain!"). The stories of their careers (Sadie became New York's first-ever colored high school teacher; Bessie, a dentist) and the social circle of brown intelligentsia in which they moved, too, are remarkable.

Peacock and Hayes were convincing, though a few shaky lines hung between the allowance of their characters' ages and forgetful acting. Hayes etched deep old maid's lines about her mouth, then trembled as she walked, smiling with the slightly neurotic, intense mischief of a psychic great-aunt. Peacock was more proper, subdued, and religious, a good momma's girl. At the play's climax, both relayed the Delany sisters' pain at having to live through the death of two brothers and their mother with choking, admirable deftness.

The audience, which frequently agreed and even chimed in with the dialogue at times, seemed glad to have basic, old-fashioned values reaffirmed, in addition to being moved and entertained by Sadie and Bessie's stories.

When the book's co-author Amy Hill Hearth first met Sadie and Bessie, she wrote that she was "stunned by how beautiful, how proud, and how independent they were." The play keeps it real; Peacock and Hayes do the sisters' characters justice. "If you think it's going to help somebody, it's worth doing," they quip, and that seems to be the play's simple, underlying purpose. Not only are the Delany sisters having their say, they're spreading the good and last word.

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