Respect your elders. I don’t know a child who wasn’t raised with that admonition, which in my household was often accompanied by a swat on the butt or a swift side-eye when due respect wasn’t paid. But it’s generally far later in life when most of us learn the value of also listening to our elders’ stories—often after the opportunity has passed.
Perhaps that’s why the stories of Sadie and Bessie Delany—the centenarian sisters whose remarkable lives were chronicled in Having Our Say, a 1993 autobiography and subsequent hit play on Broadway (and, later, a made-for-TV movie starring Ruby Dee and Diahann Carroll)—still hold so much relevance for contemporary audiences. Currently revived at Chicago’s famed Goodman Theatre, Having Our Say invites viewers into the Delanys’ home for a lesson in American history from a unique perspective, and is garnering rave reviews from local critics.
Each of the sisters—whose father, the Rev. Henry B. Delany, was born into slavery and would eventually became the first African-American Episcopal bishop elected in the United States—would become a pioneer in her own right. Both would earn advanced degrees, with Sadie becoming the first black woman to teach domestic science at the high school level in the New York City public school system, while Bessie was the second black woman to practice dentistry in the state of New York.
Over the course of their more-than-century-long lives, they lived through Jim Crow, became part of the first generation of American women with the right to vote, witnessed the Harlem Renaissance and civil rights movement, and mingled with some of the most famed names in history, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Lena Horne, to name a few. And they did it all together, living as “maiden ladies” and best friends until Bessie’s death at 104 in 1995 (older sister Sadie would survive until 1999, dying at age 109).
In the Goodman’s production, the roles of Sadie and Bessie are now inhabited, respectively, by Broadway and television veteran Marie Thomas and Ella Joyce, well-known for her roles in the film Set It Off and TV series Roc. Though several decades younger than the Delany sisters, Joyce and Thomas, who previously worked together in the 2017 short film Sweet Dreams, Momma, represent a generation of seasoned actresses as well trained for the stage as for the screen.
Handpicked by renowned director Chuck Smith (the first black resident director of the Goodman) for this revival of Having Our Say, the two not only convey a familial intimacy but also are perfect foils for each other as they bring Bessie’s feistiness and Sadie’s elegant temperance to a new audience. Sitting down for a lengthy conversation with The Glow Up, the two actresses proved perfectly cast as they spoke frankly about why the Delanys’ story is still meaningful 25 years later, the state of black theater and what it means to maintain longevity in a youth-centric industry.
Marie Thomas: I had an experience once. My mother and I were in a department store [in Atlanta] when I was a little girl. And of course, at that time, Jim Crow existed, so there weren’t any black clerks waiting on anybody. And this woman—I’m sure she didn’t mean any harm, but sometimes, the people who mean the least harm do the most—she said, “Well, how can I help you girls?” So my mother said, “I only see one girl here.”
And [the woman] sort of took aback; she didn’t understand—I think maybe later she may have understood. But there’s a lot of chances and times when we have to assert who we are and what we’re all about. If we don’t, it continues.
Ella Joyce: One of the reasons I feel that this production is so significant right now is because it deals the way it does with Jim Crow. You know, we think Jim Crow was something that happened and it went away. No. What my great-grandmother used to tell me—who was right here [in] Chicago and came from the South—she told me Jim Crow is written on their hearts up here. ... You come to the North, where it looks like that doesn’t exist, but yet, those same second-class-citizen laws are written right here on their hearts and in their minds.
Now, the reason that becomes very significant, from my perspective, right now, is because we’re questioning “Why are unarmed black kids being shot by authorities?” That is the imaginary line of Jim Crow. That is what it has done to our country. That is why we have grieving black mothers that nobody seems to care about. ... So I believe this play is significant because of what’s going on right now, to teach the younger people what the legacy of Jim Crow did in this country—that it has never really been eradicated.
EJ: What people don’t understand is that there’s a glass ceiling waiting for you as a young black performer. We always think—when you’re the next generation coming in—that things have opened up, and it’s not gonna be as difficult for you as it was for the generation before you. And then, when you hit that glass ceiling, you realize, “Oh, wow. I didn’t prepare for this. I didn’t realize it was going to happen to me, too.”
And it does; it does. That glass ceiling is waiting for you, which is why we don’t have a [black] Golden Girls on television right now, or in the movies. ... Somehow or another, that’s not being emphasized. ... It’s almost like they tell us “just go away and sit down somewhere.”
And what I want to see is that change; I want to see more stories. I want to see the comparable story to this white women’s movie [Book Club]. Why aren’t we being shown that way, as older actresses?
EJ: [Chitlin circuit plays] are not legitimate theater. That is not theater that we’re gonna archive in our libraries so that decades from now, people can revive those plays and tell something about our history, the way Having Our Say is doing right now. I believe our production is good enough to be revived on Broadway ... and would probably do as well or better than it did the first time, because our audiences are hungry, ravenous for this material, this literature. And that is what is making me feel so gratified and so good. ...
This literature needs to be archived for our people—for our children—so that they understand the eloquent way in which we articulate our experiences. And they need to see great actors who know how to portray it in a way that inspires them.
MT: There is so little opportunity for us to go see ourselves. ... So yes, Having Our Say, it can generate the same kind of interest, because you still have that group of people who are starved to look at themselves onstage. ... When I hit that stage and the audience appreciation is so sincere, and it’s so vibrant working with Ella, I say, “OK, this is good. This is what we were supposed to do.”
That’s why people need to see this play: to go through that 100 years of understanding where we were, where we are, where we hope to go—our future. If we do not know our history, we’re doomed to repeat it.
The Glow Up tip: Performances of Having Our Say will run through June 10 at the Goodman Theatre. If you’re in the Chicago area, you can purchase tickets here.