Shortly before rehearsal for Having Our Say began, Goodman Theatre’s longtime Resident Director pondered the valuable lessons audiences can learn from the Delany sisters’ fascinating lives, and reflected on the milestones of his own incredible career.
Michael Mellini: It’s been nearly 25 years since Bessie and Sadie Delany released their memoir, and its stage adaptation enjoyed success on Broadway and in Chicago. Why did you want to bring their story back to the stage?
Chuck Smith: The sisters’ lives are really interesting to look at from the lens of what African American life was like in the 20th century. They were born in 1889 and 1891, respectively, and lived pretty much all the way through [the 1990s]. And they lived together their whole lives! These women were very accomplished, but to see the problems they faced as educated black females, you can just imagine what life was like for the average African American female during the same time. Sadie was a school teacher, Bessie was a dentist and they were all-around model citizens. In a time when we’re talking about immigration and all the other buzz words in politics now, you’ve got to look at what it means to be a model citizen. The sisters were really focused on voting. I wanted to direct this play at this time in part because this is an election year, and I wanted to bring attention to how important voting is in this country. The sisters never missed an opportunity to vote, and our audiences shouldn’t either.
MM: For all the unsettling topics addressed in the play, such as Jim Crow laws and racially motivated acts of violence, there is also a great deal of humor, largely because of the sisters’ exuberant personalities.
CS: Yes, they were really good-natured, interesting humans. The sisters grew up in The sisters grew up in North Carolina and their father was also very accomplished, even though he was a former slave. He became one of the first African American ministers in the Episcopal Baptist Church and made sure his children received a proper education. He knew the more you’re educated, the further you can go. The sisters took that and ran with it, but they were kind, fun-loving women who enjoyed life to the hilt. They made their way to Harlem and were there for the Civil Rights Movement; everyone who was somebody in those days knew the Delany Sisters.
MM: Several significant historical events have occurred since this play was first produced, including the election of our country’s first African American president—an event the sisters doubted might ever happen. Does that influence how you approach the material?
CS: In terms of the African American experience a lot has changed—but when you dig down deep, not much has changed. Attitudes are the same in many parts of the country, and in the hearts of people who harbor dislike for others. If there’s anything good about the current [political climate] it’s that we can now see clearly how little has changed. A lot of people don’t like people of color and that is being amplified. People will often minimize this notion, saying, “Well, we’re just divided.” But this is in people’s hearts! It’s ingrained in their upbringing. We might not be able to do much about that, but once you recognize and realize it, you’ve got a compass to navigate the waters. The Delany sisters were able to navigate the waters, even though everything was against them. I think that is what’s going to resonate with our audiences.
MM: Tell us about the two actors you cast to portray the sisters, Ella Joyce and Marie Thomas.
CS: I have worked with both of them before—Ella in the Goodman production of Lynn Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy (2006) and Marie when I directed Charles Smith’s Knock Me a Kiss in New York and at the National Black Theatre Festival. They both separately expressed interest in this play when we worked together. Ella is quite feisty just like Bessie and Marie is a determined, forceful and very lovely lady, just like Sadie.
MM: In the play, the sisters recount their family history as they prepare a birthday meal in honor of their late father. Why do you think food has a unique ability to bring people together?
CS: We all eat—and we all like to eat! When I was young, we hung around the kitchen because that’s where all the action happened. My mom often baked pound cake, and now I make the same one she did. Once she’d get the cake in the oven I would lick the bowl and spoon, which was so much fun. I still do it today!
MM: By presenting an oral history of their life stories, the play allows the sisters to reflect on their many achievements. You’re celebrating a milestone of your own this season, your 25th with the Goodman. Can you reflect a bit on your time at the theater?
CS: There’s no better theater in the country than the Goodman. The staff knows exactly how to do what has to be done, and the process by which a play is put together is one that should be emulated all over. The Goodman is and always has been supportive of the artists. My first experience was as an understudy in 1970 in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. I was flabbergasted these people were so nice. I said, “One of these days I’m going to work here.” It took me 20 years, but I got here and have never left. The big change was, of course, moving from our old location at the Art Institute to the new complex. I’ve also enjoyed seeing more people of color in more important places in the system, such as the Board of Directors. When you’ve got people like Les Coney and Peter Bynoe on the board, it really adds to who you are as an organization. It shows the Goodman is headed in the right direction, and knows what this country is all about.
MM: The plays you direct at the Goodman, and at theaters across the country, are often about not just African American experiences but African American history, even if historical fiction. Why is history important to you?
CS: Well, sometimes a good play just happens to have historical context, so I don’t necessarily seek plays that are specifically historical. But yes: The Good Negro was very much about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pullman Porter Blues about the experiences of the train workers who relayed information from the North to the South. If a good play turns out to be historical, then I’m happy, because I don’t think history—especially in terms of African American history—is well taught in this country. Kids need to know about their country, so, any chance I get, I’ll put it out there. By seeing this play you’ll come out with a much better perspective on what life is like for individuals of color in this country. That’s the great thing about theater. Hopefully you leave enriched—and with just a little bit more knowledge than you had when you came in.