I learned an important lesson while watching Having Our Say, Emily Mann's theatrical adaptation of the best-selling memoir from a pair of hundred-year-old black sisters in New York: African-Americans have indeed arrived in the mainstream. This huge Broadway hit celebrates the fact that they can be just as shortsighted and long-winded as white people.
I must confess to approaching Dallas Theater Center's 1997-'98 season finale with some trepidation because I know that, to help combat enormous debt, DTC has embarked on a rescue mission into more audience-friendly waters. In this spirit, the subtitle of Mann's show, The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, is the kind of cute, office cubicle-poster humor ("I'm not a hundred years old, I'm a hundred years young!") that I've never been able to digest easily. The only justification for calling this droning account of Bessie and Sadie's "First 100 Years" is if, a century from now, our heirs are treated to a sequel called "the Delany Sisters' Second 100 Years," in which ticket-buyers sit for two hours before a silent display of the Delanys' mummified corpses.
But that would be both frightfully boring and tasteless, a venial theatrical sin. Having Our Say happens to be both frightfully boring and tasteful, a mortal theatrical sin. My disgust toward this show's phony humility, its complacency, its clumsy ring-knocking toward controversial issues, can be traced to one dearly held belief--conflict is the engine that drives good theater. Bessie and Sadie Delany, born in Virginia of a former slave at the end of the 19th century, unmarried their entire lives, college-educated and of independent financial means, appear to be quite opinionated about the racial and sexual delivery pains they witnessed in America's long, tortured labor for a genuine democracy (we're still awaiting the birth). But they spend the whole play peddling their passions as cozy soundbites.
If you can't enthrall audiences with the massive injustices these two ladies faced, then please pursue a job other than playwriting. But Emily Mann, currently artistic director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey, is being hailed all around the country as the major purveyor of "testimonial theater"--plays that portray real-life historical figures delivering their stories in the first person. The uncharitable view of this dubious genre is that it puts the playwright in the role of editor, not creator, who just anthologizes the most palatable tidbits of someone else's hard-earned wisdom. I favor this latter opinion, having several years ago seen a Dallas production by the defunct company Moonstruck Theatre of Mann's second most famous, equally didactic script, Execution of Justice, based on court transcripts of the trial of Dan White, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk's murderer.
Yet Having Our Say fails even in its modest attempt to collect the greatest hits of two smart, fiercely independent black women. The acrid odor of whitewash hangs about this two-character gabfest, set while the sisters prepare a tribute dinner for their long-dead, much-admired father. The theatergoing audience in America is overwhelmingly Anglo; you don't have to be Joseph Papp to realize that any play that confronts whites who can pay high ticket prices with our painful racial history is a major commercial risk. Yet over its numerous national productions (DTC is a tad tardy in bringing us this regional favorite), Having Our Say may indeed have attracted more middle-and upper-class African-Americans to the theater. But that's beside the point; this script introduces, then merrily dismisses with the wave of a wizened female hand, subjects like slavery, lynching, Jim Crow laws, and everyday street bigotry. Anglo ticket-buyers who've never talked more than 20 minutes with a black person can feel good because they've been aggressively courted by Sadie and Bessie, two onstage paper saints whose blackness has been comfortingly diluted by the yellowing of age. Meanwhile, black audiences with a feverish thirst for yet another regurgitation of sainthood-via-victimization will have it quenched by both the impossibly resilient Delany sisters and the fact that two black actresses are being regularly employed (an anomaly in American commercial theater, to say the least).
Under the direction of Shirley Basfield Dunlap, the two out-of-towners employed in DTC's production, Brenda Thomas and Sharita Hunt, have strengths as actors that both betray and bolster this production. Thomas, as the sweet-natured, consciously Christian, accommodationist Sadie, anchors her performance in convincing facial and bodily gestures that suggest we are actually watching a hundred-year-old woman. Hunt, who plays the (slightly) colder, angrier, more confrontational Bessie, never for a moment appears to be a century old. But as the woman who expresses the most unsanitized emotion in the play (she genuinely dislikes Anglos as a race), she has the better comic timing and reminds us how much better this show could be if it would only carry tales from the dark side. Emily Mann's script has Bessie invite everyone, even Anglos, into her home with magnanimous, if prickly, good will. As a white man reading between the lines, I can't help but suspect that the real-life Bessie would have greeted me at the porch with a twelve-gauge, not a cup of tea.
You want great testimonial theater? Flip to Anna Deveare Smith, the Lily Tomlin of the socio-realistic stage. I've never had the privilege of seeing her live, but I watched the PBS presentation of her one-woman show about the Crown Heights fracas and marveled at this artist who interviewed people from every religion and any race that would talk about that Brooklyn neighborhood's tragedy. Actor-writer-director Smith was truly transformational because she studied the ethnic details of each subject, then jettisoned racial considerations altogether to portray an entire community of conflicted, bigoted, but earnest individuals.
Obviously, I've never met Bessie and Sadie Delany, nor have I read their book. It's entirely possible that these two women were as wise, good-humored, and forgiving as they are portrayed in Having Our Say. If so, kudos to them; their centered reminiscences serve as models for social and political consensus. But they make for lousy theater. I've come to rely on the stage to yank away the blankets of civility and expose all those bittersweet, sad, sweaty, distorted feelings we're not allowed to reveal anywhere else. Having Our Say presents a cup of racial strife so lukewarm and pure, you can rest it on a lace doily with confidence. But the discerning ticket-buyer may begin to crave a few spills, a few stains on this bleached, blinding fabric.
Having Our Say runs through May 3. Call 522-TIXX.
Undermain Theatre member Bruce DuBose expresses concern during a voice-mail message that he doesn't know how to banter, "based on the dictionary definition." He agrees to meet me anyway for salad (him) and coffee (me).
When I last saw DuBose, I was avoiding him across a crowded room after an Undermain production he directed--Austin Pendleton's Uncle Bob, a show that wasn't, for me, a particularly gratifying night of theater. In an attempt to redress an act of cowardice that might've been received as a snub, I sat across from him in the late evening sun, several hours before his performance in the first audience preview of The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite, the second frolic the Undermain has produced by playwright Quincy Long.
He has the same gray-blue laser eyes and the same deep, seductive, slightly sinister voice you can hear in national voice-overs (next up, he narrates the PBS documentary "The U.S.-Mexico War") that provide a beautiful ballast to the Undermain's wild palate of programming. "I don't get particularly nervous anymore," DuBose says serenely. "But I do get excited. We spent less time than usual rehearsing this show, but the experience won't be complete until it involves an audience. A production doesn't really start to take off until the second weekend after opening night."
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The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite is a slightly darker romp than the Undermain's 1997 holiday hit A Por Quinly Christmas, written by the same playwright. Yet it promises a similar musical brain-tease ("sometimes we break into song," DuBose chuckles) in its tale of three dimwitted, unemployed buddies (DuBose, Bob Erwin, Tom Lenaghen) who encounter a drunk (Anthony Ramirez) and are propelled into a wild goose chase based on their earnest interpretation of a mysterious note they find inside his hat.
DuBose plays the mob leader here, adding unabashedly broad comedy to his recent resume of narcissistic fly-fishing author (Chekhov's The Seagull), offstage orchestrator of uncle-nephew incest (Uncle Bob), angel of death (John O'Keefe's The Deatherians).
"I'm not sure I know the difference between drama and comedy anymore," DuBose admits, perfectly describing the sucker-punch that every successful Undermain show delivers. "You want to put an unexpected bit of comedy into drama, and you want to play it dark when people are expecting laughs. We're still negotiating with this production about how much of both we use."
The Joy of Going Somewhere Definite runs through May 23. Call 747-5515.