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From Delany sisters, wisdom of the ages Theater: Emily Mann gives African-American centenarians their say and the audience a distinctly human experience.


"Child, I feel like I've known you all my life," centenarian Sadie Delany told playwright and director Emily Mann on the first afternoon they spent together.

Mann was visiting Sadie and her sister Bessie while researching the play "Having Our Say," which went on to become one of the hits of the 1994-1995 Broadway season and is now on a national tour. (It arrives at the Mechanic Theatre tonight.)

Adapted from the memoir written by Sarah ("Sadie") L. Delany and A. Elizabeth ("Bessie") Delany with writer Amy Hill Hearth, "Having Our Say" is Mann's two-person drama, which quietly and movingly relates 100 years of American history. In the space of an evening, the play takes the sisters -- whose father was born a slave -- from the Jim Crow era in their native North Carolina, to Harlem in its heyday, to Mount Vernon, N.Y., where the play is set and where Mann met them a few years ago.

Sadie became the first African-American home economics teacher in a New York City high school and Bessie was the second African-American woman dentist licensed in New York. The story of these remarkable sisters might seem distinctly American. And yet, Mann was struck by how much they reminded her of two women she'd met in South Africa in 1987 -- Adelaide Tambo and Albertina Sisulu, wives of African National Congress officials, and the women who "ran the revolution while the men were in prison."

"What I got from the women in South Africa and I got from the Delany sisters," Mann explains, "was an incredibly big vision of what we can be as human beings and what our best selves can be, and it's not saccharine, it's not fake, it's totally earned. If that kind of wisdom could get out to a larger populace, I felt I had been able to do something worthwhile in my life."

Molasses and vinegar

Another thing that struck her was how much the Delanys' relationship resembled a marriage. "I saw how each really finished each other's thoughts, each other's gestures, and the respect and love that just emanated from them to each other," she says.

"One is molasses [Sadie] and the other is vinegar [Bessie]," she says, borrowing Bessie's description. The glue holding them together, Mann concluded, was a shared value system built on "family, religion and giving to other people and education."

Many of these values, as well as the struggle for equality, had also been instilled in Mann, who "grew up in the civil rights movement," as she puts it. The production of "Having Our Say" illustrates the Delanys' commentary with period slides, including one of Mann's late father, historian Arthur Mann. It shows him on the march from Selma to Montgomery with noted black historian John Hope Franklin, whom she describes as "my second father."

The playwright had another connection with the Delanys as well -- that of being a faculty child. The sisters were raised on the campus of what is now Saint Augustine's College in Raleigh, N.C., where their parents were teachers and administrators. Mann grew up on the college campuses where her father taught -- first Smith and then the University of Chicago.

Nowadays, she's back on a college campus, this time as artistic director of Princeton University's McCarter Theatre. One of a relatively small number of playwrights who are artistic directors of major American regional theaters, Mann -- who turns 45 on Saturday-- is in her seventh season at the McCarter.

Under her guidance, the theater won a 1994 Tony Award and has developed a reputation for nurturing new work, especially that of pre-eminent South African playwright, Athol Fugard. (The McCarter production of Fugard's latest play, "Valley Song," is currently on tour and opens May 1 at Washington's Kennedy Center.)

Despite her background, Mann didn't initially think of turning "Having Our Say" into a stage play. She had read the 1993 book on the recommendation of her sister, a literary agent. "I absolutely loved it," Mann says. She then lent it to Judith &L; Rutherford James, a friend and producer, who insisted: "Emily, you've got to do this."

In 1987, Mann and James had worked with Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, on an unproduced miniseries about Winnie Mandela, which had taken them to South Africa. They teamed up again when Cosby's enthusiasm for "Having Our Say" turned out to echo that of Mann and James. At first they considered a screen adaptation, then Mann decided to put Sadie and Bessie's story on stage.

"I was the one who said let's do it as a play first. Why don't we keep control over this? Hollywood is so difficult for women and black people," Mann recalls.

'Theater of testimony'

She visited the Delanys over a series of afternoons. The very first meeting supplied the hook she needed to restructure their story into a stage play. Just as the sisters welcomed her into their home, so would the characters welcome the audience.

In February 1995 -- only 18 months after she began work -- "Having Our Say" opened at the McCarter and broke the theater's box office records. "We played to 101 percent. People were lining up. They had to be turned away," Mann says. Later that season it transferred to Broadway.

"Having Our Say" is neither Mann's first play using the words of real-life characters, nor her first dealing with social justice. Beginning two decades ago with "Annulla," the account of a Holocaust survivor, she has written five plays based on verbatim accounts. Her style of theater was dubbed "theater of testimony" by the late South African director Barney Simon, who felt her work -- like that of a number of South African dramatists -- gave "voice to the voiceless."

In his introduction to "Testimonies," the just-released anthology of four Mann scripts, Fugard, whose next play is slated for the McCarter's 1997-1998 season, writes: "More than any other American writer of our time, the body of her work has demonstrated the central importance of theater to the psychic well-being and sanity of a society."

The impetus for Mann's testimony plays came from an oral history project conducted by her father on Holocaust survivors. On vacation from Harvard University in the early 1970s, Mann read one of the project's transcripts -- that of a Czech woman who had been prima ballerina with the Prague National Ballet.

Asked how she survived the Treblinka death camp, "[The former ballerina] said, 'I kept thinking of this beautiful pirouette I was doing. I kept thinking of how to make it a perfect moment of beauty and by concentrating on that I believe that's what kept me alive,' " Mann recalls. "I went to my father crying. I said, 'This is so brilliant and beautiful, I'd like to make a play of it.' " Instead, her father encouraged her to find her own material.

This led to "Annulla," based on the aunt of one of Mann's close friends. Next came "Still Life," about a Vietnam veteran, his wife and mistress, all of whom Mann had met in Minnesota, and "Execution of Justice," about the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk. Mann's Broadway debut, "Execution of Justice," had been widely produced in regional theaters -- including Center Stage in 1985 -- but lasted only a few weeks in New York. Her latest, "Greensboro: A Requiem," is about the murder of five demonstrators in an anti-Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in 1979; it premiered at the McCarter in February.

For the past five years, Mann has been battling multiple sclerosis. Although this has forced her to cut back on some of her work, she says, "In an odd way, I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, it has enriched my life. My doctor said, 'Those people who see this kind of illness as a calamity don't get better, and those people who see it as an opportunity do.' And that's been true for me. Or, as Sadie Delany once said to me, 'Oh, you have to love your wounds.' ... I've had to slow down, had to do less, and by doing less I'm accomplishing more. My priorities are real, real clear."

Mann stayed in touch with the Delanys after completing the play. One of her more memorable experiences came the day the sisters attended the Broadway production. Although efforts were made to draw as little attention to them as possible, Mann says, "The audience did notice they were there, and at the first intermission, people started to buzz about it.

"At the end of the show, [the actresses] started to get their usual standing ovation and cheers, and then they noticed the entire audience had turned from them and was cheering the box seats. ... The sisters stood and bowed to the actresses, and they were all throwing kisses. The audience was crying."

Mann also visited the Delanys shortly before Bessie's death in September. She realized it would be the last time she saw the 104-year-old woman. "She just was losing a certain clarity," Mann says. "She said some things that really startled me. She looked at me and said, 'Ms. Mann, is there still segregation in the South?' I didn't know what to say. I said, 'Well, not legally.' "

Though Bessie has died, her wisdom and that of her sister will continue to enlighten and entertain audiences through Mann's play, and eventually through the film, for which she has just completed the screenplay. The director and playwright says that, while she knew the play would appeal to her McCarter Theatre audience, "I had no idea there would be such a huge storm. ... People went mad for the sisters, and it made me so happy because, of course, I had. It made me happy to be part of the human race."

'Having Our Say'

Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 20

Tickets: $25-$45

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 4/08/97

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