Friday, February 26, 2016

Saying a Lot

Having Our Say -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru March 13

Brenda Pressley and Olivia Cole
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

You shouldn’t kick a puppy. You shouldn’t steal candy from a baby. So how do you say anything negative about Emily Mann’s Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years? This tour of a century or so of black and American history (which, of course, are intertwined), out of the mouths of two fragile yet feisty women, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Jade King Carroll and will soon migrate to Hartford Stage, is both engaging and, ultimately, boring.

Yes, a lot has happened since the Delany sisters -- Sadie (Olivia Cole) and Bessie (Brenda Pressley) -- were born -- the Civil War was just some two decades in the past when they first saw the light of day and the slaves had been freed to live a slightly different life of indenture. What followed was decades of racism in subtle and not so subtle forms: lynchings, Jim Crow laws, separate but equal, the civil rights movement and, well, essentially where we find ourselves today. Yes, it’s the stuff of gripping history, and the Delany sisters lived through it all, and that’s a marvel, but it doesn’t make for great theater.

Okay, so why is it hard to be negative about Having Our Say? Well, from the moment the two sisters appear on stage you like them, you want to listen to them, you want to sit down and have tea with them. Cole and Pressley create two extremely memorable characters – you believe they are sisters and you believe that they have lived the lives they speak about. You truly get the feeling that you have been invited into their home in Mount Vernon and they are gracing you with their memories. All you need is an afghan thrown over your legs and a fire crackling in the fireplace.

You simply can’t ask for better acting than what you will see from Cole and Pressley. There is never a doubt that these two women on the stage have lived together for a century – they complete each other’s lines and share the same mannerisms, yet they are not clones. Cole, as Sadie, is the gentler of the two, more willing to let things slide off her, to not take umbrage when the world offers unkindness, while Pressley, as Bessie, is a fighter, someone who will not allow a slur to pass unnoticed. They acknowledge their differences, gently taunt and tease each other, but there is a binding love that is palpable, and it casts a warm glow over the entire evening.

So, what’s the problem?

Well, warm glows do not a play make. The dramatic arc of the play is the struggle that black people have lived through over the decades, and this is where Having Our Say falls short, for the sisters, as dramatized, were on the periphery of the struggle, a struggle which continues to this day. They were essentially observers to the momentous events. Thus, when we are not dealing with their relationship, which is engaging, we are treated to seminars on black history, accented by visual projections by Alexis Distler, who also designed the set. You can almost sense when the play shifts from intimate relations to didacticism. During these moments, lines delivered, mostly by Pressley, get applause. It’s akin to a politician working the crowd, saying what the people want to hear. It isn’t theater, it isn’t drama, it’s polemics, a stump speech. Do I disagree with these lines, with their meaning? No. But I know when I’m being manipulated, and much of Having Our Say is manipulation.

We care about Sadie and Bessie because Cole and Pressley make us care, that’s great theater, but then our concern for them is used to deliver messages, and valid though these messages may be, when wrapped in the security blanket created by these two women as they prepare their deceased father’s favorite meal, the messages cannot be argued, debated or seriously weighed. What they say must be right (and the applause attests to this). So, what we have is a tender little domestic pastiche wedded to an argumentum ad passions. It’s not that I disagree with anything that was said over the two hours it took for Having Our Say to unfold, I take exception to the manner in which it was presented.

What Having Our Say lacks is inner tension. Playwright Mann, drawing on the book written by the Delanys and Amy Hill Hearth, sticks to the facts as told by the Delany ladies, and they are interesting and sometimes engrossing, but there are no skeletons in the closet, nothing to move towards and reveal, nothing up for grabs between the two characters (you know, the good old rising action and climax). Thus, Having Our Say is often more lecture than drama. We gather together to hear what these ladies have to say about their lives and we listen attentively, and we feel good about ourselves as we leave the theater. We are on the side of the angels. Perhaps it is only later, upon reflection, that we sense something missing at the core of Having Our Say, something that speaks to why we go to the theater. If it is merely to have our beliefs confirmed, then I imagine Having Our Say succeeds for most, but if it is something else, the need to be swept up in a conflict that is (perhaps tragically) resolved, then Having Our Say does not deliver. It is, at the end, what it was at the beginning – two very nice ladies sharing their memories. It’s a visit to Grandma’s house where she offers you cocoa and cookies and reminisces (and never once mentions how much she hated Grandpa, or why). It’s safe, it’s soothing, but it ain’t drama.

Having Our Say runs through March 13. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

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