‘Having Our Say’ at Paul Robeson

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 06/24/10More articles
Annette Adams-Brown and Karin Franklin King as sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany. Photo © brantleycarroll.com, used with permission.

When Sonita Surratt completed her MFA in theater at Syracuse University earlier this year, she headed for Chicago, her plan being to put herself in the thick of African American dramatic production. She quickly found an apartment and some of her first messages to friends and family back here had to do with learning to cook for herself. Despite those bulletins of her solo culinary adventures, it’s not surprising somehow that much of the action in “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” occurs as the two elderly protagonists go about the preparation of what might be a single day’s worth of meals. The three act play is set in the Mount Vernon, New York home they share – late morning, afternoon, and evening – and the play’s direction displays an almost preternaturally sharp awareness of how relationships manifest in the simplest of daily behavior. Watch for that brief but telling tug of war over the bowl of cake batter.

Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company lured Surratt back to Syracuse to direct Emily Mann’s play, which Surratt saw in 2009 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey – she says she put it on her “dream list” of plays to direct – after several earlier attempts to produce the play. Surratt has been well-known to Central New York stage audiences for years now, both for her own performing and directing projects. She may not be as well known for work like her private vocal coaching; the Nines Jazz Ensemble’s Lauren Johnson Albaroni commented recently that she hadn’t had a good lesson since working with Surratt. Anyway, the director wanted to do this play too, so it’s a toss-up as to who lured whom.

Adapted from the 1994 joint memoir by the two elderly Delaney sisters – one is 101, the other 103 years old – the play allows Sadie (played by veteran performer Annette Adams-Brown) and Bessie (Karin Franklin King) to reminisce about their lives, their family and their times. Adams-Brown is also associate artistic director of PRPAC and her presence as one of the leads is likely to draw an audience all by itself. She plays the “sweet” sister, a retired school teacher who dislikes confrontation. Despite some other stage work in the area, Franklin is more widely known locally as a television journalist and frequent Emcee, but her performance here as “Queen Bess” – a pint-sized dynamo with razor sharp comic timing and a flash of anger at injustice undiminished by her age – is a revelation. We need to see much more of her on Syracuse stages!

The Delaney sisters recount what was both a somewhat privileged childhood and one that ran the gamut of experience; their father was both a former slave and the first African American Episcopal bishop, and the vice principal at Saint Augustine’s School in Raleigh, North Carolina – affectionately know as “St. Aug’s” – and they endured both Southern segregation and an extended social circle that include, for example, visiting Paul Robeson back-stage during a trip to London when the famed performer was there. The sisters lived in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and each was accomplished educationally and professionally; Sadie was the first Black woman to teach “domestic science” in New York State and Bessie the first to earn a dentist license here. Active participants in the Civil Rights era, the Delany sisters were also among the first to integrate white suburbs when they moved to Mount Vernon. There, on this summer day, they relive a century of momentous change and take a fine delight in having outlived “the Rebby boys” (Southern proponents of Jim Crow and segregation). The Delany sisters also had a white grandfather, and their account of that chapter in family history and what they observed is especially telling and adds a resonance to the rest that lingers long afterward regarding how unsimple our shared history really is.

Rich as honey, leisurely as a sun-shot summer afternoon and nourishing in ways that purely action-driven drama utterly misses, “Having Our Say” is a must-see if ever their was one.

“Having Our Say” opened last Thursday at the Dee-Davis Black Box Theatre, 805 E. Genesee St., and continues through this weekend. Call 442.2727 for tickets. A selection from Marjory Wilkins’ recent ArtRage photo exhibition, “A Tender Record,” accompanies the production.

A shorter version of this review appears in the June 24, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle. Nancy covers the arts.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Paul Robeson Performing Arts Company, Delany sisters, Sonita Surratt, Annette Adams-Brown, Karin Franlin King, civil rights era, Jim Crow, African American theatre, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.9/5 (27 votes cast)

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