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Delany Sisters are having their say in Essex

I never thought I'd see the day when people would be interested in what two old Negro women have to say," Bessie Delany remarks near the start of Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years.

Bessie, who was the second black dentist licensed in New York, may not have been wrong about much in her 100+ years, but she certainly underestimated the interest in her and her older sister, Sadie. Their memoir became a best seller; the play adapted by Emily Mann from that memoir became a Broadway hit; and it, in turn, was made into a TV movie.

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On a smaller, but still impressive, scale, the community theater production mounted by Arena Players last fall has taken on a life of its own, with subsequent engagements from Catonsville to Artscape. Last weekend, it settled into new quarters - the Cabaret space at Cockpit in Court, where it is the first production that the summer theater has ever brought in from another company.

Director Randolph Smith has smoothly altered his original blocking for the in-the-round Cabaret, a configuration that makes the sisters' welcoming embrace feel all the warmer. But it's the distinct but interdependent characterizations that turn this play into more than just a historical account, albeit a fascinating one that includes references to such famed Delany acquaintances as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington.

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The sisters acknowledge that they are, in some ways, "like one person," and this is eminently clear in the performances of Hilda V. Peacock and Corlis Hayes. More than once, the women politely but deliberately cut each other off in a rush to complete each other's sentences, and at times one mouths the other's words, as if she's heard a particular story so often she could repeat it verbatim.

But the way in which the actresses convey the sisters' divergent personalities is what gives their portrayals texture. Hayes' Bessie is indeed "vinegar," as she is described. She still gets visibly riled at everything from a bigoted professor she had in dentistry school to the redneck "rebby boys" ("rebel") from her youth in the South.

In contrast, Peacock's Sadie, the oldest sister of the 10 Delany children and the first black woman to teach home economics in a New York City high school, is "molasses," a sweet, soft-spoken soul (although Peacock's less-assured stage presence slightly mutes the effect).

Director Smith incorporates some touches that can seem a bit sappy, such as having the sisters sing "Happy Birthday," in little-girl voices, or having them join hands and lean toward each other in prayer with foreheads touching. But the latter pose takes on added meaning as the play progresses, and when they re-create it in the curtain call, it is almost as if the actresses are sending a silent prayer to the real Bessie and Sadie, who died in 1995 and 1999 respectively, but live on in this heartfelt work.

Show times at Cockpit, on the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Blvd., are 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $13. Call 410-780-6369.

Renaissance men

It takes a confident playwright to write a play about a master dramatist. That's exactly what audacious Mike Field has done in For the Return of Albion, the Chesapeake Center for the Arts' latest entry in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

His protagonist is Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's contemporary and rival. Field approaches his subject from two vantage points, both of which have a personal connection to him. A former writer for Maryland Public Television, he is interested, as he explains in a program note, in the dichotomy between the spoken word and the visual presentation (represented in his play by Jonson's set designer, architect Inigo Jones). And, as a former head writer for the Maryland Renaissance Festival, he is concerned with Jonson's era.

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Unfortunately, the historical event on which Field bases his play is relatively obscure. In 1624, Jonson wrote a court masque called Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion. Written in honor of Prince Charles' return from Spain, where he was courting the Infanta, the play became embroiled in court politics and was never performed.

The court intrigue and the posturing of the French and Spanish ambassadors have built-in drama, but for a modern American audience the conflict requires so much explanation (provided here in the form of letters dictated by the Venetian ambassador), that much of the drama is drained.

The words-vs.-images issue is a more accessible one, and Field makes it all the more so by having Jonson, who embodies "words," at constant loggerheads with Jones, who embodies "images." This intriguing theme, however, is complicated by the fact that Field and director Noel Schively (who also plays Jonson) are going for a bit of Jonsonian verisimilitude in terms of performances.

Jonson often created characters who were more "types," or caricatures, than flesh and blood. It can be devilishly difficult to portray these types and not seem merely buffoonish, and most of the cast - including Schively's vitriolic, indignant Jonson and especially Roy Hammond's bumbling Jones - are unable to overcome that difficulty. (Exceptions on the plus side are Ted Paulsen in the role of an actor who gets to recite some of Jonson's actual text, and Randy Dalmas as the slimy, self-serving Duke of Buckingham.)

No set designer is credited, and in fact the scenery is fairly clumsy for a play that is partly about a set designer. However, the splendid period costumes, borrowed from a theater company in Virginia, would be a boon to any Renaissance festival, and the same might be said for this entire play.

Show times at the Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, are 8 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15. Call 410-636-6597.

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Broadway on MPT

Broadway's Lost Treasures, an anthology of Broadway highlights originally broadcast during Tony Awards telecasts dating from 1967 to 1986, will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday on MPT, Channels 22 and 67. Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach and Chita Rivera serve as hosts. Among the stars showcased are Yul Brynner, Carol Channing and Joel Grey. Broadway fans, set your VCRs.


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