'Having Our Say' at PTC: Two charmers, two hours

'Having Our Say' at PTC: Two charmers, two hours

'Having Our Say' at PTC: Two charmers, two hours

This is the month for Having Our SayPhiladelphia Theatre Company’s production at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre through Feb. 19. Looking for an eloquent evocation of what it’s like to live life in these United States as a person with African antecedents? Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany — sisters who lived 213 years between them — can tell you. One of this play’s most precious moments is the look of uncomprehending disbelief on the faces of the two superb actors, Perri Gaffney (as Sadie) and Cherene Snow (as Bessie) as they recount the long, unfinished chronicle of white rage and violence.

Backstory: In 1991, these two real sisters, living in a house together in Mount Vernon, N.Y. (where they had lived since 1957), told their stories to Amy Hill Hearth, leading to the book Having Our Say in 1993. Two years later, the great Emily Mann debuted this play, based on the book, at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. It won a Peabody, Tonys, a Christopher Award, and more. Bessie died that year at 104. Sadie died in 1999 at 109. Great American lives both.

 The effect of this PTC production is kindly and warm, rather than inspiring and motivating. These two are charmers, and as played by Gaffney and Snow, distinct. Sadie is the elder and the leader, but she avoids confrontation (“She’s sneaky,” says Bessie, and such sneakiness pays off). Bessie, though she assents to Sadie’s leadership, is more of a fighter, determined to face the power and speak. What lives! They met everyone: W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, Cab Calloway, Eleanor Roosevelt. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, everyone, it seems, knew the Delany sisters and their eight siblings. They got advanced degrees and had long careers. We get a sense of time-depth, of experience. But I am not going to tell you this play moves.

I am a big fan of Emily Mann’s work. Her 1997 adaptation of García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba is one of my favorite productions. Yet I sometimes suspect that, especially where politics is concerned, her characters talk a little too much. She adapts the book Having Our Say well – much twinkling humor, many a telling line – but the main challenge goes unsolved.

This is two hours of two elderly women telling their stories. They sit, get up, cook, bake, tussle over what pans to use. Here’s to a fine set by Jason Simms (at one point, walls draw away, and the entire set comes downstage, as though trying to move things along), sound work by Christopher Colucci, and excellent video projection by Christopher Ash. These go far to evoke history and enliven the time. We do grow fond of the Delany sisters. Still.

One quickening point is when the sisters concede that turning 100 can be “the worst day of my life.” Longevity has its triumphs: All the old racists are dead. But the sisters have also endured terrible losses, loss after loss. All they have is each other. Gaffney and Snow handle that mutual acknowledgment with delicacy and grace.  

In its gentle fashion, the play slaps away any notion that we’ve solved our race problems. It teaches us what these two lives — hardworking, believing, forward-looking — were like. That alone puts a smile on your face as you leave.

Having Our Say. Through Feb. 19 at Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. Tickets: $12-$69. 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.

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Published at Sat, 04 Feb 2017 00:19:41 +0000

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