Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

By Pressley, Nelson | Insight on the News, December 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis


Pressley, Nelson, Insight on the News


Conventional wisdom in late 20th-century America holds that white directors need to tread carefully, if they dare to tread at all, on material that deals with the lives of African-Americans.

Emily Mann, the writer-director who adapted the 1991 book, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years for the stage, is familiar with the issue. The play is based on the memoir of Sarah L. (Sadie) and A. Elizabeth (Bessie) Delany, two centenarian sisters whose father was born into slavery - a situation skeptics might say can be fully appreciated only by a black writer-director.

"I know all about it, believe me," says the 44-year-old Mann with a wry laugh. "I know what I'm up against - that white people are exploiting black people's stories. And at a certain point I thought, `I could not do this, or I will do it - and if other people have a problem with it, they have a problem with it.'"

Not many people have a problem with Having Our Say. The play is a charming portrait of two fascinating women who, in the face of early 20th-century racism, become a high-school teacher and a dentist. The Delanys' story also is a journey across a large, rocky patch of American history.

As adapted and directed by Mann and performed by Mary Alice and Gloria Foster, Having Our Say became one of the surprise hits of the 1994-95 Broadway season. The national touring company, starring Lizan Mitchell and Micki Grant, has taken the show on the road, and the single-set, two-character drama will be the fifth most-produced play in the country's regional theaters this year.

Stylistically, Having Our Say is right up Mann's alley. Her method is to bring dramatic shape and theatrical energy to real-life material she pulls from archives or gathers in interviews. Her first play was Annulla, An Autobiography, based on an interview she conducted with a friends aunt, a Jewish woman who survived World War II. Still Life, also culled from interviews, features straightforward testimony from a frighteningly violent Vietnam War veteran, his terrorized wife and his lover, who seems to view the vet's dark side with an assassin's calm. Execution of Justice deals with the murder of George Moscone (then mayor of San Francisco) and Harvey Milk (a city supervisor) at the hands of former City Councilman Dan White. And Mann's most recent work, Greensboro: A Requiem, revisits the 1979 incident in which members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazis shot 13 people at an anti-Klan rally, killing five.

"I learned about the Holocaust in my grandmother's kitchen," recalls Mann. "And how most of is learn about great wisdom in the world and what happens to people is literally in our aunts' or our mothers' or our grandmothers' kitchens. …

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