Alice Walker once said that it's "a wonderful time to be a black woman ... because the past is studded with sisters who, in their time, shone like gold. They give us hope, they have proved the splendor of our past, which should free us to lay just claim to the fullness of the future." In the dramatic adaptation of Sarah and Elizabeth Delany's best-selling autobiography Having Our Say, Berkeley Rep Director Roberta Levitow opens the door to the lives of these century-old African-American sisters who've struggled against racism to feel a sense of belonging in the United States.
We're invited into the home of Sadie, played by Delores Mitchell, and Bessie (Vinnie Burrows) in upstate New York, where they've lived, they tell us, since around the time when Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat. While first picking through photos in the living room and then peeling yams for dinner (the stage pivots to show both rooms) they take us back -- through their coming of age in a Jim Crow South, their adulthood in New York during the Harlem Renaissance, and finally their old age, which alone stretches from the civil rights era up to today's conservative backlash.
The sisters were destined to break color lines. Born in the 1890s, they learned to cope with an everyday repression -- though the racist South didn't repress Bessie, who giggles lightly as she recalls sipping from the "White" fountain, then noticing how it "tasted just like the Colored." In counterpoint, Sadie reminds us that such line-crossing could turn horrific; she tells of some local "Reb types" (white racists) who lynched a young African-American girl and brutally ripped her belly and unborn fetus apart. As Bessie and Sadie's odyssey continues, they mix memories of sadness and pleasure. Tears roll as Sadie recalls their late mother, Nanny Logan, who taught them the ABCs while cooking up a storm; they choke back a deeply felt sorrow for their brother, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack. However, they also find much to celebrate. Both remember fondly their father, Henry Delany, who single-handedly built their home and was the first African-American bishop elected to serve the Episcopalian Church. Bessie beams as she recalls graduating from Columbia's dental school; Sadie gleefully tells of duping a racially segregated New York high school system to become the first black woman to teach domestic sciences there. And they fondly revisit their friendships with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, who used Bessie's office to strategize for "Negro" rights.
Levitow's carefully choreographed interplay of body gesture and oral exchange, along with Mitchell's and Burrows' heartfelt, intimate performances, brings to the stage a strong sense of these two women: We feel as if they're our grandmothers too. We're not just meeting the Delany sisters here; we're meeting all those Bessies and Sadies who, ignored in the reckoning, continue in the struggle to make the future a place we might finally all be able to call home.
-- Frederick Luis Aldama
Zooman and the Sign. Written by Charles Fuller. Directed by Stanley Williams. Starring Teddy Love, Eloise Chitmon, Kelton Howard, and Wedrell James. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through June 8. Call 474-8800.
Every time Zooman comes onstage to explain why he doesn't feel responsible for killing a girl, a rap song plays on the sound system. The play is Charles Fuller's 1980 Zooman and the Sign, now at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater; the song is Tupac Shakur's "I Don't Give a Fuck." Zooman is a gangbanging kid who shot a 12-year-old black girl by accident while she was sitting on her own porch. "I Don't Give a Fuck" is his leitmotif. His opinion is that the girl shouldn't even have been outside -- he was only trying to shoot his enemy, Gustav, anyway. The girl's mother, Rachel Tate (Eloise Chitmon), knows that a few neighbors saw the crime, but they all fail to cooperate with the police. Her husband, Reuben (Wedrell James), hangs a sign over the door: "The killers of our daughter Jinny are free on the streets because our neighbors will not identify them." This upsets the neighbors.
The play is a grim drama about responsibility, undercut by Rachel's funny cousin Ash (Thea-Marie Perkins), who runs off at the mouth in her bright Southern voice. When Reuben talks about the street's lack of community, she declares, "I blame a lot of this on food stamps." Food stamps have let black people isolate themselves and buy junk food and get fat, she says. In the old days there were community cookouts and good solid food -- "our bust lines an' our hips was legendary!" she says and strokes herself, writhing, while the audience hollers.
"I think Reuben's talking about something else," Rachel says dryly.
The story is told efficiently on a stage with the graffiti-tagged corner of a brick building on one side and the Tates' living room, behind a screen, on the other. A few scenes in the living room drag with uneven acting, but they don't ruin the powerful script. Teddy Love turns in the best performance as Zooman, swaying while he talks, wild-eyed, in a hooded Citibank sweat shirt -- he can't feel remorse but he can be eloquent, giving street-talk speeches about injustice that echo the rage in Tupac's rap. The play ends after he sees the sign and announces himself outside the Tates' window. A pistol bought by their teen-age son, Victor (Gary Nesbitt), goes off, and I don't think it spoils anything to say that most of the crucial questions -- about revenge, about gangsta rap and violence -- are left open by the liveliness of Zooman's character. Only on the subjects of cowardice and responsibility is the play unambiguous.