Blue-Pate Special

My dissatisfaction with Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years is not about the quality of its production. The show's current interpretation by Phoenix Theatre is well-acted and--with the exception of some dreadful age makeup--a technically proficient version of this well-regarded Broadway hit. But playwright Emily Mann's adaptation of the sisters' best-selling autobiography is as plodding and unexciting as a day at a nursing home.

Arguably, Mann may have intended Having Our Say as just that--a virtual reality visit with a couple of nice women who've both managed to live past their 100th birthdays. But Mann has missed her chance to charm us the way that the Delanys' book, co-authored with journalist Amy Hill Hearth, did. Mann's softened some of Hearth's sharper points about race relations and old age, and the resulting effect is of a very long afternoon with a couple of maiden aunts whose stories ramble and rarely reach their point.

Having Our Say is drawn as a day spent with the real-life Delany sisters in their home in Mount Vernon, New York. Sadie Delany is 103, her sister Bessie 101, and they've lived together for the past 75 years. They recall their lives as African-American women who were taught by their parents to disregard Jim Crow and "reach high." The sisters speak directly to the audience--we are presumably there to interview them for a magazine story--while they cook and do housework and pore over family photos and musty memories.

These are old women as drawn by Hallmark: They're cute, feisty and enormously wise. One of them is salty, the other sweet, and neither says anything we wouldn't expect out of a quaint grandma who happens to have seen a history that won't ever repeat itself. I'd like to have heard the women debate the benefits of the Civil Rights movement, or discuss segregation in something other than wistful, forgiving terms. Instead, Bessie tells us how, as a child, she drank a dipperful of water from a barrel intended for "white folks." Both women marvel at Bessie's bravery, burst into laughter, and then are off to tell their next clever story. If I were a visiting journalist, I'd want to know how the women felt about all that "whites only" signage we see flashed on a scrim behind them; I'd ask them questions about ageism and about what it feels like physically to be that old. Mann's script does not.

It can't be easy to play centenarians, but both Claudia Robinson and Linda Hunt Taylor make it look pretty effortless. The actors have a keen chemistry, and their performances overcome Stephen Miller's ghastly, distracting age makeup, which gives both actors a freakish purple cast.

Gro Johre has done away with the annoying scenery revolve of the show's original Broadway production, replacing it with an attractive, stationary set that replicates the sisters' elegant New York house. Director Michael D. Mitchell moves the women from place to place with realistically cautious movements: They cling to the backs of chairs as they walk; proceed painstakingly down a single step.

In the end, none of this fine acting or attention to detail does much to animate Mann's lifeless, overly sentimental script. The nearly 150-minute tale ends up feeling not like a stirring history lesson from a couple of people who've seen the world, but rather an obligatory visit with a couple of nice old ladies we don't plan to see again.

 
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