One of the most ghoulish stories I’ve ever heard was a 2015 NPR piece by Daniel Rosinsky-Larsson about the way a New England newspaper’s well-meaning tribute to the area’s oldest people was being received by some of its recipients. Instead of welcoming the award as a nod to their longevity, some of its horrified winners viewed it as an ominous “kiss of death.” Compared to a lot of other societies, America has some work to do when it comes to taking care of its longest-living citizens—let alone honoring them.
I suppose that’s part of why Emily Mann’s joyful, informative stage adaptation of Bessie and Sadie Delany’s 1993 memoir (cowritten with Amy Hill Hearth) is such an affecting and uplifting experience. One-hundred-and-one-year-old Bessie (Ella Joyce) and 103-year-old Sadie (Marie Thomas) welcome audiences into their living room and kitchen in Mount Vernon, New York, and tell stories from their long lives, which span the postslavery Jim Crow era, the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights era.
Most memorably, Chuck Smith’s Goodman Theatre production is full of tales of gamesmanship and outright social defiance the Delany sisters engage in while having to navigate the demands placed on women of color in their white-dominated professions (Sadie was a teacher and Bessie a dentist). In some cases, it’s brave mischief, like skirting a face-to-face interview in order to secure a position at a white-run school; in others, it’s staring down death, as when Bessie tells off a leering white sexual harasser. “I wasn’t afraid to die,” she says. “I know you ain’t got to die but once, and it seemed as good a reason to die as any.” That one of the most badass lines uttered on a Chicago stage this year comes from a based-on-real-life centenarian woman of color is pretty fabulous. v