Whidbey Playhouse lets Delany sisters have their say
— Created February 24, 2021 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
Two extraordinary women share their reflections on life from their 100-year-old perspectives in the latest production streaming Friday and Saturday by the Whidbey Playhouse in Oak Harbor.
“Having Our Say,” a play by Emily Mann, based on the book by Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth, tells the story of Sadie and Bessie Delany, African American sisters born in North Carolina in 1889 and 1891, respectively. Their father, Rev. Henry B. Delany, was born into slavery, later becoming an Episcopal priest and the first Black Episcopal bishop elected in the U.S. Their mother, Nanny Logan, was a teacher and the daughter of a free African American woman and a white farmer. After growing up in North Carolina, the sisters eventually moved to Harlem in New York City and after retiring from their professions, moved to Mount Vernon, N.Y.
The Delany sisters achieved great professional success and were civil rights pioneers. Despite the racism and sexism of the time, both women earned advanced college degrees: Sadie earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in education and was the first Black woman to teach domestic science in a New York City high school; Bessie became the second Black woman in New York state to become a dentist. Their book, “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years,” written with The New York Times’ Amy Hill Hearth in 1993, made them best-selling authors. The pair never married and lived together their entire lives. Sadie passed away in 1999 at age 109; Bessie died in 1995 at 104 years of age.
Fast forward to 2020, a difficult year all the way around and particularly for community theater. The challenge, according to “Having Our Say” producer, Sue Riney, has been to find material suitable for livestream performances with small casts (due to COVID-19 restrictions) and a well-written, good story.
“As I was searching last year for possible plays, this one jumped out at me for all those reasons – as well as the fact that it’s about two very strong, independent, and successful women (they both became the first in their fields to do what they were doing) and that it deals with many racial and gender equality issues that are still at the forefront today,” Riney said. “I’m personally very much myself an advocate of women’s rights and believe it’s important we highlight stories that amplify women like Bessie and Sadie Delany. After sharing the concept with Allenda [Jenkins] and looking for a calendar time that would work for both her and Germaine [Kornegay] to take part, she suggested Black History Month – which, because the story shares so much of the sisters’ own history as well as the history of this country, make it a perfect fit.”
Jenkins and Kornegay have relied heavily on Zoom rehearsals, which Riney said has made the production experience all that more interesting.
“Allenda and Germaine have been meeting separately, and we only got together in person at the Playhouse for the first time Feb 8.” Riney explained. “We are preparing this for filming in a MUCH shorter timeframe than a typical show would have on stage, so in that regard Allenda and Germaine aren’t having the same amount of time to get comfortable with the blocking.”
Like many community theaters, the move into recording performances for streaming online is a far different experience from a live stage production. There are new challenges, but there are certain advantages as well, according to Riney.
“Because this is recorded rather than live, it gives us the opportunity to have Allenda and Germaine run the scene without us filming so they can warm up and we will then film it,” she said. “That gives them time to regroup between each scene and check their scripts to confirm their lines – of which there are a HUGE amount!
“We don’t have to worry about the time needed for scene changes that happen in a live performance as we can simply stop filming, reset the stage as needed, and start up again – and our editing will make the transition appear seamless,” Riney continued.
One unique aspect of this production is that the Playhouse is able to project genuine photos from the Delany sisters’ lives, giving the audience an even more authentic experience.
“We were thrilled this production included the option to license use of an image package to be projected during the show, with pictures of the Delany family that Sadie and Bessie describe in their stories as they look through old family photos,” described Riney. “Because of this option, and because we are including more close-up camera shots of the ladies rather than the full stage, we opted to have a very minimal set, with just the projection screens behind them, along with a couple of tables and chairs.”
The play originally takes place as the Delany sisters prepare a full dinner in their kitchen. It has been simplified for this production since a working oven and functional sink are not part of the Playhouse’s stage. Even so, audiences are invited to share in a home-spun, on-demand streaming experience with Sadie and Bessie anytime Friday or Saturday only.
“Rather than stretching out the number of days we make it available and increasing our expenses, we opted to focus on the two days it would be available and encourage as many people as possible to view it on those dates,” Riney said. “But instead of just airing it at a specific time each night, we are making it available ‘on demand’ throughout the full day of February 26 and 27 so viewers can watch it any time during those two days that is convenient for them.”
Riney said she hopes the production will spark interesting family dialogues among audiences.
“I hope those watching this production realize, especially during our current challenging times, that these women provide a great example of how to live,” Riney said. “They knew how to live and how to love. They celebrate life and they celebrate survival – which is so very needed today. So, my hope is the show will generate conversations between friends and family about their own histories and how events impacted them – conversations they may not have had before seeing this play. And that they too will celebrate!”