“HAVING OUR SAY: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years”, the book, was a 1993 bestseller by two Black sisters at 101 and 103, as interviewed by NY Times journalist Amy Hill Hearth. Camille Cosby (my partner), Emily Mann (writer-director, artistic director of the McCarter theater) and I had worked together on a miniseries for NBC on Winnie Mandela in the late ’80’s and had a great, collaborative relationship . HAVING OUR SAY captured us immediately. Advisers, agents etc thought we wanted to do a television movie… but it felt wrong. The TV model was: they are born, they live, they die. Well, the sisters didn’t die, their crackling wisdoms, humor, and startling perceptions from a 100 year perspective were alive and well! Their tales were mesmerizing, but, as in the book, we wanted their perspective on the times and on themselves. It was writer Emily who suggested a play and set herself a huge challenge to write it as a two character play, with the audience in the position of the listening interviewer. I was the hold-out, worried it would be at the most an off-broadway piece without a huge reach. But no matter how you looked at it, Emily’s idea would find the story strengths and shape, give the material time to tell us what else it could be. We decided we’d aim at the perfect little gem of a theater on Broadway, the Booth Theater, on Shubert Alley, and if that particular theater wasn’t available we’d do it at The McCarter in Princeton, New Jersey and then go to off-Broadway with a strong marketing package.
Fortunately, the smart and audience-wise McCarter Board agreed with Emily and came on board as a co-producer with us and she could do readings and workshops, and listen and we could discuss. Having actors read your script, or do slightly rehearsed/discussed workshops – an amazing and fruitful opportunity while you are writing. Since Emily was going to direct it too, she could continue to imagine the action and see changes come up, cut or re-wrap spots. We’d wrestle along with Emily – late night phone calls testing inclusions or elimination. We were all aware of the responsibility we had to the sisters and the significant Black stories they were telling- many the opposite to commonly held opinions. It was a major task to turn the 320 page book into a play, getting the pith of the overall story from what was used, not missing what wasn’t. So many stories to pick from. Emily would write a scene (using their words/dialogue from their telling of it); then she’d ask – had the point been made before, was the theme of that decade in their lives already covered. Could it be better told or woven? Readings were truly helpful and I recommend them for any type of script. Its no longer you and your page. It makes you listen with other people’s ears. It makes you objective.
Amy had literally “made” the book and had done an exceptional job of interviewing them, and putting their story in the order of their lives, their interests, even though the stories tumbled out as they thought of them. Emily had to sort it even more. The play with two intermissions, which Emily rehearsed like a drill sergeant to keep it conversational, came down under 104 minutes (common wisdom says that’s 320 pages ‘reduced’ to 104 pages.)
We got the Booth Theater. A play was finishing it’s run and we were vetted and in line. (Broadway theaters were/are booming – mostly because of the Chamber of Commerce screaming to tourists: MUSICALS, MUSICALS. But the Booth was small and could accommodate only the smallest of MUSICALS. They were rare, so we were next in.)
It was a booming success – unusual for a ‘straight play’ and it ran for 9 months, went on two tours and we finally did do it as a movie for television -which Emily wrote – that story is under the movie poster!
NY Times review, April 17, 1995 by Vincent Canby: “The most provocative and entertaining family play to reach Broadway in a long time has a cast of two, a single set and a time span of something less than two and a half hours…
Ms. Mann, who also directed “Having Our Say,” has shaped the material so that the tales flow easily one into another until, by the end of the performance, you feel as if the stage has been packed with people…
The characters and the stories are not mere reminiscence. They fit together to create a panorama of particular times and places, of racism, sexism and indomitable will. In the center: two remarkable women who carved out careers where none existed, and who lived lives of the mind in a middle-class black America that is often dismissed today as irrelevant”.