After wonderful reviews for the Broadway play as a two-character journey over 100 years, and a limited tour to large cities, we did a very satisfying ‘college tour’ many of the dates being at Historically Black Colleges. The press coverage was always startled and delighted. Many actresses were able to stretch in meaty roles the likes of which weren’t often written for Black actresses. Dramatists Play Service was also able to service more than 100 small theater companies and college groups in their first 2 years of representing it.
By 1997, while the above was going on we were thinking about a movie and agreed between the three of us – my partner Camille Cosby, Emily Mann writer, and me- that the Delany sisters’ story could be told this time as a major series of flashbacks arising out of the sisters talking to the interviewer, Amy. Their sharp, often funny, often shocking, always right-on commentary after living over 100 years would be included. It wouldn’t look like a traditional “bio picture”.
Colin Callender at HBO wanted us to think about filming the stage play. That could have worked but it would necessarily have been “small”. We talked with Ruth Vitale of Paramount Vantage about a small-ish movie for a smallish release. We had big goals though. We couldn’t see it being primarily marketed to the Black audience recently discovered by film marketing departments. We wanted a very wide audience and thought our Broadway ‘demographics’ indicated the interest. We wanted to be as arrogant in the film world as we’d been in the theater – how about a movie-of-the-week broadcast on a network in a primetime spot.
It was going to be necessary to present an extensive outline of how it would tell its story on Television and Emily as the writer-to-be, though with no television credits, took a deep breath and dug out the story. Adapting a book is hard, writers will tell you it is no easier than writing a brand new screenplay. In fact, that was very true here. Emily is very adept as a ‘documentary” stage writer – often using the words of living people to magical effect and she’d done that with the stage play. It was masterfully done, shaped dramatically, putting the audience, with familial love in their hearts, on its feet at the end of every performance. Here though, she would be writing a television play, new scenes as the sisters remembered them, needing life and newly built characters and plot. Almost starting over.
Writers adapting books have to make plot choices with the original writer peering over their shoulder. Its the nature of the beast but in this case the writer, Emily, with only the Delany’s memories to work from, had to make up entirely new visuals for plot points. Sadie and her stern father, Bessie and a lynch mob got powerful images. Facing “How?” was daunting at the beginning.
CBS was our best go-to network and Emily’s outline was impressive. It was decided that CBS Productions would be our production house and we were good to go. It was an amazingly successful evening. Coverage in over 17 major city newspapers, great numbers and recognition in all of the wonderful reviews of Emily’s elegant script. Diahann Carroll (Sadie), Ruby Dee (Bessie) and Amy Madigan (as Amy Hill Hearth) starred, wonderfully directed by Lynne Littman.
A note about “adaptation”: Lynne insisted that we ‘needed’, the audience needed, a scene about Bessie turning down a marriage proposal after she had become a dentist (in1914). It was one sentence in the book and play. Lynne felt that everyone would want to know why the sisters stayed single their whole lives. They’d had loves in their teens and in college. Papa interfered regarding the reputations of the young men, but it was the sisters’ decision not to marry. Of course Lynne was right. The scene, after hours in her dental office, became an oft-mentioned scene in which Bessie in 1915 explained to the boyfriend she loved that she had to concentrate on her work, had to be strong and single if she wanted to be proud of herself. In 1915, her personal statement naturally reflected the campaign for women’s right to vote at that time. Of course she was of her time.