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Having Their Say: The Goodman Theater’s Neena Arndt on the Delany Sisters

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In 1993, Sadie and Bessie Delany published Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, which went on to top bestseller lists. (It was also featured as one of ALA’s “Best Books of 1994.”) The Delany sisters, both more than 100 years old when journalist Amy Hill Hearth recorded their oral history, experienced the Jim Crow South firsthand and worked as unmarried women in New York. From May 5 to June 10, Chicago’s Goodman Theater will be performing the theatrical adaptation of the sisters’ memoir. I talked on the phone with the Goodman’s dramaturg, Neena Arndt, about the remarkable Delany sisters and how a playwright might go about capturing long, wild lives.

 

BIZ HYZY: When you were doing your research for this play, did you stick to the original memoir, or did you also use supplemental materials?

NEENA ARNDT: This is an interesting play in that the sisters do a really good job of explaining the context for everything that they’re talking about. I was definitely looking at the play, which is one work of art, and then there’s the memoir, which has more extensive stories and includes some things that the play doesn’t. And then there’s also the broader world of things being discussed. Because it is a relatively short play, it serves as an overview of African-American history during this time, but it certainly isn’t comprehensive. Part of my research [focused] on what it would be like to be an African American woman in the era of the Delany sisters, who went to college and had careers, because that was unusual in that time.

 

Delany sisters both lived to be more than 100 years old. How does the playwright Emily Mann go about encapsulating that in one show?

It’s a little more focused on their earlier lives than their later lives because that’s the part of history that feels the most distant to us and that they were able to bring us closer to. In the early ‘90s, not too many people remembered the 1890s, but they did!

 

The play has only the two characters, Sadie and Bessie. Can you explain how that plays out on stage?

The sisters are talking about their lives, but they’re also cooking dinner. It’s their father’s birthday; although he passed many, many years before, they celebrate by cooking his favorite dinner and eating it themselves. There’s the sense that you, the audience, are a guest in their home. You are being invited in, even though there’s  800 people.

Their first interview wasn’t for a book or anything; it was a New York Times article, and the journalist didn’t have a phone. She’d been in touch with them through, I think, neighbors. She knocked on their door, and they invited her to come in and sit down and talk to them. We, the audience, are almost in the place of that journalist, Amy Hill Hearth. Even though we’re not asking them questions as a journalist would, we’re invited to sit where she was sitting, which is a really interesting place. It must have been so great to be her.

 

What do you admire most about the sisters?

They had a tremendous ability to live their lives on their own terms even in an era when the world did not want them to do that. They had a lot of strength and confidence that they got from their parents and their family, and they never lost that their whole lives even through a lot of prejudice and discrimination and bigotry and sexism. They were able to be confident in their own abilities and their own accomplishments, which I think is incredible.

The details of exactly what they were doing in terms of being a dentist, being a teacher—those are great, but they are in some ways less interesting to me than the fact that they always persevered.

 

Neena Arndt

What’s the tone of the play? It seems like it could go in a couple different directions.

The play’s interesting in that it’s very heartwarming. It’s funny. These ladies definitely had a great sense of humor. Part of the experience, I think, is that you are hearing some of their stories. Sometimes, they’re talking about Jim Crow laws. They’re talking about lynchings. They’re talking about these very, very dark periods in history, and yet the experience you’re having is kind of warm and grandmotherly.

It’s particularly interesting because this play is 23 years old at this point; it premiered in 1995. There are things we know about African-American history and what’s happened since then that the Delany sisters don’t know. There’s a whole discussion about whether there will ever be a black president. They think no, that won’t happen, or it’ll be a thousand years. They’re giving us so much African American history, but then we also have the benefit of knowing what’s happened in the past couple of decades.

They were mostly optimistic, although they had realistic views about what had changed and what hadn’t changed in terms of race relations of their lifetimes. I feel like you mostly come out feeling that same way: somewhat optimistic but also realizing that there are still challenges.

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About the Author:

Biz Hyzy works as an editorial assistant for Booklist's Adult Books department, where she pilfers the most appealing ARCs before anyone else gets the chance. Besides reading, she enjoys swing dancing and ninja training (though, in her case, both include a lot of bumbling around).

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