- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Mother raised her youngest daughter to respect her elders. That said, the problem with Olney’s un-spry production of “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” is not the source material.

The 103-year-old Sadie (Claudia Robinson) and 101-year-old Bessie (Gloria Suave) have enough riveting material for a trilogy of plays about them because the two black women lived through the end of slavery and Reconstruction, the Jim Crow laws, the heyday of Harlem, the war years (four separate times), the civil rights movement and the tumults of the 1970s and ‘80s.

What saps “Having Our Say” of its vitality is the acting. Miss Robinson is the more effective of the two, making a credible old lady and imbuing the character with a sweetness that is anything but docile. She also knows her lines, which is something her co-star, Miss Suave, has not yet mastered.

Miss Suave flubbed line after line until you started to wonder whether she was an 11th-hour understudy. (She wasn’t.) The tripping over dialogue and cues continued well into the second act, topped only when Miss Suave started erroneously calling her sister “Bessie,” prompting the other actress — finally fed up with the unprofessionalism — to proclaim: “My name is Sadie.”

When such awkwardness and uncertainly exists in a two-person play, the uneasiness filters into the audience. Not even the venerable Halo Wines, serving as director of “Having Our Say,” can salvage a show when one of the lead actresses fumbles with the script.

It may seem gauche to say this about a play featuring two women more than a century old, but “Having Our Say” isn’t aging well. Based on the popular 1993 book (which came out of Amy Hill Hearth’s article in the New York Times), “Having Our Say” was a senior sensation when it was made into a play in 1995. It was a Broadway hit and earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations.

The play is almost 10 years old, and the more modern insights the Delany sisters impart are not as fresh as they were. It seems like ancient history to have them talking about Dan Quayle, David Duke and Jimmy Carter.

When the show focuses on the sisters’ rich family life and the matter-of-fact way they broke down professional and personal barriers, it is absorbing and triumphant. The Delany sisters and their eight brothers and sisters were all beloved children, sheltered and brought up with a strong sense of religion, dignity and responsibility.

Even though the family had little money (“We had everything a family could want except money,” Bessie says), there was never any question that all the children would attend college and have careers. After moving to Harlem in the late teens, Bessie became the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York, and Sadie was the first black woman to teach in a white public school. Their siblings became doctors, lawyers and judges.

In addition to being pioneering career women, the Delany sisters — who never married and jokingly attributed their longevity to remaining “maiden ladies” — were immersed in the heady stew of the Harlem Renaissance and counted W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes among their friends.

One of the happiest days of their lives was when women earned the right to vote. The Delany sisters voted in 1920 and in every election until Sadie’s death in 1995 and Bessie’s in 1999. That sense of civic and social responsibility is a marvel to behold.

The breadth of the Delany sisters’ experience makes “Having Our Say” a toasty and inspirational journey. Sad to say, Olney’s production does not uphold the impeccable standards these women aspired to — and achieved — in their long, fulfilling lives.

..

WHAT:”Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” by Emily Mann

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Through March 21.

TICKETS: $15 to $36

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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