KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 17, 1997
Two graceful adaptations of beloved books are gracing San Diego stages right now. Up in Moonlight Amphitheatre, it’s “The Secret Garden,” and the La Jolla Playhouse is presenting “Having Our Say.”
The Delany Sisters, Sarah and Elizabeth, AKA Sadie and Bessie, became an overnight sensation and a national treasure with the 1993 publication of their memoir, “Having Our Say,” an oral history that chronicled a century of American life. In Emily Mann’s theatrical recreation of the book, the 103 year old and 101 year-old siblings invite us into their living room, to tell us about their parents and grandparents, their eight sisters and brothers, and their lives of challenge and triumph, from their father’s slavery years, through the Jim Crow era, the Harlem Renaissance, two world wars, the Civil Rights movement and the running of Klansman David Duke for President.
They’ve seen it all, and these two dignified African American ladies don’t mince words; they go right to the heart of the pain and loss and racism they’ve suffered, but also the joys of a close and loving family (though neither of them ever married), and a series of firsts that would be unbelievable if it were fiction. They got master’s degrees at Columbia before they got the vote. They broke down all sorts of barriers to become a teacher and a dentist, one a sweet pacifist; the other, a spunky activist. Bessie, the younger sister, died two years ago at age 104; Sadie is still kicking at 108.
Portraying them, in spectacularly irresistible performances, are two much younger women who look, act, feel old and sisterly. Micki Grant and Lizan Mitchell have both won awards for their recreation of the Delanys. They are warm, loving, teasing, tensile survivors. They finish each other’s sentences, they make little faces behind each other’s backs. They charm us and make us laugh and feel guilty and proud and tearful and hopeful, in rapid succession. This is no typical American twosome, black or white; these are very special ladies, and we feel privileged to spend an evening with them. The husband-and-wife team of director Loretta Greco and designer Robert Brill have succeeded masterfully in bringing us into these women’s home and their lives. Maybe the writing isn’t brilliant and incisive; but this is a searing personal history of America and it engenders both anguish and pride.
In a very different theatrical vein, Moonlight’s musical production calls up memories and emotions, too. Many of us read and adored Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, “The Secret Garden,” the story of a rich, spoiled English girl who lost her parents to a cholera epidemic in India, and was sent to live with her sad and sour uncle in Yorkshire. There she discovers an invalid cousin, a magical friend and a bit of earth which had belonged to her aunt, who died in childbirth ten years earlier. Little Mary Lennox awakens the garden and the household.
Eighty years after its publication, the story still holds up in the musical by Lucy Simon, with book and lyrics by playwright Marsha Norman. Maybe the songs aren’t terribly memorable, and those dead relatives make one too many comebacks, but there’s at least one truly heart-wrenching number, “How Could I Ever Know.”
MUSIC excerpt: “How Could I Ever Know”
The Moonlight production is terrific. The sets are inventive, the costumes are lovely, and the singing is spectacular. As Mary, Candice Nicole Safstrom may make a premature transition from savage to savior, but her presence and her voice are delightful. Also outstanding, both in acting and singing, are Ryan Lowe as the magnetic Dickon, Alexandra Auckland as the feisty chambermaid Martha, and Danny Michaels as the grieving hunchback, Uncle Archie. Director Ray Limon closes the Moonlight Summer season with a smash — a sentimental show your family can’t afford to miss.
Out with MUSIC: “A Bit of Earth….”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.