Preview: Longtime friends and Broadway performers Terry Burrell and Julia Lema to play real-life sisters in Lyric Theater's 'Having Our Say'
A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Sister act: Longtime Broadway buddies Terry Burrell and Julia Lema portray real-life siblings in Lyric Theatre's 'Having Our Say'
Terry Burrell and Julia Lema last shared the stage 34 years ago in the Broadway musical "Honky Tonk Nights," but their friendship has carried on long after those final bows.
"We just kind of clicked. We just have the personalities that clicked," Lema said. "We don't talk every day or whatever, but when we see each other it's like I just say her yesterday."
Those bonds formed on Broadway are serving them well in their long-awaited stage reunion in Lyric Theatre's 2020 subscription season opener "Having Our Say," a two-person show in which they portray real-life, trailblazing centenarian sisters.
"Even in rehearsals off script, we're razzing each other," Burrell said during a break in rehearsals at Lyric's production center.
"We're still at it," Lema said, as they both chuckled. "I'm laughing about our relationship as friends, but these sisters take care of each other."
Opening Wednesday and continuing through March 8 in Lyric's intimate Plaza Theatre, Emily Mann's 1995 play relates the remarkable life story of centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delany. Feisty African-American sisters who were barrier-breaking daughters of a former slave, Sadie was 103 and Bessie was 101 when they gained fame with the 1993 publication of journalist Amy Hill Hearth's best-selling book "Having Our Say," which Mann adapted for her two-woman stage show.
"Here are these two sisters that had lived through most of American history up until recently, and all of their observations of American history are totally applicable today," said Lyric's Producing Artistic Director Michael Baron.
"They talk about not only Jim Crow laws and what it meant to be a single black woman and become a teacher and a dentist, but also they have musings about 'Will we ever have a black president?' and how they feel about that. They talk about what I would call identity politics and how they preferred not to be called African-American or black ... and they just had an amazing life: They met the queen of England; they saw everything."
Both seasoned Broadway performers, Lema ("Guys and Dolls," "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music") will portray Sadie, who died in 1999 at 109, while Burrell ("Dreamgirls," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Swinging on a Star") will play Bessie, who died in 1995 at age 104.
"They both are storytellers, and they each tell it in their own particular way. And there's so much history in the piece and the way they each tell it from their point of view in their lives, how Sadie would handle something differently from Bessie, but the end result is to get what you wanted, to accomplish your goal. And they have different ways of doing it, but Sadie is a little more calm," Lema said of her character. "I think she thinks it out more, where sometimes Bessie would be more straightforward and she gets a little more angry quicker than Sadie."
Both sisters were trailblazing career women and civil rights pioneers. Sadie earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in education and became the first African American to teach high school domestic science in the New York City public school system. Bessie graduated from Columbia University's School of Dental and Oral Surgery and became the second black woman licensed to practice dentistry in the state of New York.
"Human beings are so complex. Both of these women are highly intelligent, highly educated women. I love women who are unapologetic," Burrell said of Bessie. "She is unapologetic. She is straightforward. She's matter of fact about things, the most awful things she's matter of fact about. 'These are the facts, and I don't care if you don't like it. ... This is what happened, honey, and this is how we dealt with it.' And yet, she also has a certain kind of finesse and a gentility about her and what she says. She doesn't use foul language, and she is aware that in speaking things that are difficult for people to hear, that she's able to soften it.
"She's always balancing things because she remembers things, she holds on to things, she becomes very angry. It really hurt her when she would encounter instances of prejudice because that's not intelligent to her - it is not intelligent to me. ... But then she'll balance it out by saying, 'Well, you know, every once in a while, God sends me a nice white person. And I think that's his way of keeping me from being too mean. And when he does, I got to eat crow, and honey, crow is a tough ol' bird to it.' So she balances that humor and that anger - and that anger is always there."
The Delany sisters never married and lived together for much of their long lives. During their stay in Oklahoma City, Lema and Burrell are staying next door to each other in the same apartment complex and spending time together even when they're not rehearsing.
The play is set in Bessie and Sadie's home as they are celebrating the birthday of their late father.
"They say, 'Most people grieve to remember, we celebrate.' So, they're cooking all his favorite foods," said Burrell, who is based in Atlanta. "I think when people live together for a very long time and they're in the kitchen together - and there is a YouTube thing of the two sisters in the kitchen - you get a rhythm down. ... There is a kind of choreography; you can anticipate because you've been living with this person a long time what they're likely to do and you kind of counteract that. So, it is a little dance."
The performers will actually cook on stage for every performance, which will make the dance a little more complex.
"When I was learning it, I would go over it and I would cook my dinner or I would make my lunch just to get in the habit of moving and talking," said Lema, who is based in New York.
"I think we'll find our own rhythm with it and the things we're supposed to do."
Opening during Black History Month, "Having Our Say" presents African-American history in an engaging, relatable way, the performers said.
"Can you imagine what they've seen and just all of that history and the way they survived and got through it? It gives you encouragement, and I think it's a piece that should really continue to be done," Lema said.
"It encourages and it educates - all kinds of people," Burrell added. "I would love to be able to do this not just for young white people but young black people as well. These women were alive when women didn't have the right to vote, something simple like that. Whites and blacks could not marry in Virginia legally until 1967; it just boggles the mind. So, I love that this piece is able to talk about things that are difficult for people to hear, but they do it in way that's palatable to the ear."
Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say"
When: Wednesday-March 8.
Where: Lyric at the Plaza, 1725 NW 16.
Information and tickets: www.lyrictheatreokc.org or 524-9312.