Jim Crow is no match for two black sisters in "Having Our Say" at Hartford Stage

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HARTFORD, CONN. >> There is a moment of remembrance late in director Jade King Carroll's production of Emily Mann's "Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" at Hartford Stage when the play's, and this production's, even-tempered surface is pierced and we are taken to an aching heart pulsing beneath.

The setting is the Mount Vernon, N.Y. home of two centenarian spinster sisters — Sarah Louise "Sadie" Delany (Olivia Cole), 103; and Annie Elizabeth "Bessie" Delany (Brenda Pressley), 101 — who, on the occasion of his birthday, are honoring the memory of their deceased father, the Rev. Henry B. Delany, as they do every year by preparing a special dinner. The patriarch was born a slave in 1858 and eventually became the first elected black Episcopal bishop in the United States. His wife, Nanny, who died in 1956 at age 95, was born a free black girl, was Delany's classmate, and class valedictorian, at St. Augustine School in Raleigh, N.C. The cleric has remained a strong presence with his daughters. Just how strong is revealed when, in that moment in the third act, Sadie — her voice deep and resonant as if it were coming from some other place — speaks about her father with a hauntingly unadorned simplicity and authenticity that commanded, on the night I saw the show, breathholding, heartbreaking silence from the audience. It's a quality Cole touches earlier when Sadie talks about the one love of her life and a would-be relationship that was brought to a stop by her father.

But it's not only in these revelatory moments that one senses the reverend's presence. Particularly as played by Cole and Pressley, there is a palpable, underlying sense throughout of the values and principles he instilled in his daughters.

At a time when women in general had few, if any civil rights, life was even more problematic for women of color. But "Having Our Say" is, among many things, a story of survival, often at a cost, but survival, and success, nonetheless.

Sadie moved to New York in 1916, went to Pratt Institute and then enrolled at Columbia University's Teacher College, from which she graduated in 1920 and began teaching at a public school in Harlem, making her the first African- American to teach domestic science in a New York City high school. In 1925, she earned a graduate degree in education from Columbia. She continued teaching until her retirement in 1960.

Bessie came to New York in 1917 to live with Sadie in Harlem. In 1919, she began studies at Columbia University's dental school, from which she graduated in 1923. Two years later, she opened her dental practice in Harlem. She was the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State. She retired in 1950.

Adapted for the stage by Emily Mann from a hugely popular 1993 best-seller written by the sisters, with Amy Hill Hearth, "Having Our Say" premiered in 1995 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J. — where Mann is in her 26th season as artistic director and resident playwright — before moving to Broadway later that year.

Bessie also died in 1995, at the age of 104, after "Having Our Say" had opened on Broadway. Sadie died in 1999 at the age of 109, after having co-written, again with Hearth, a second book, "On My Own at 107: Reflections on Life Without Bessie."

Given Pressley and Cole's performances, Alexis Distler's richly detailed set, Karen Perry's evocative costuming, and projections by Distler and Paul Piekarz that offer something of a social and historic context for the Delanys' narrative, there is a distinct sense of personality and color that compensates for the absence of drama.

Cole and Pressley supplement each other nicely in a pair of performances that give great attention to detail, physical and emotional, and the whole affair moves with evenhanded and graceful temperament.

"We're having our say; giving our opinion," Bessie says with impish defiance and pride. Indeed.

What: "Having Our Say — The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years" by Emily Mann. Adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. Directed by Jade King Carroll

With: Olivia Cole, Brenda Pressley

Designers: Alexis Distler, set and projections; Karen Perry, costumes; Nicole Pearce, lighting; Karin Graybash, sound; Paul Piekarz, projections; Baikida Carroll, composer; Carol "Cici" Campbell, wigs

Who: Hartford Stage (in association with Long Wharf Theatre)

Where: 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn.

When: Through Sunday. Evenings — Tonight and Thursday at 7:30; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes

Tickets: $85-$25


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