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Theater review: Broadway performers Terry Burrell and Julia Lema bring homey warmth to Lyric Theatre's 'Having Our Say'

From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]
From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]

A version of this review appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read my preview story on Lyric's "Having Our Say," click here

Theater review: Homey storytelling helps Lyric Theatre's 'Having Our Say' bring black history to life

The tantalizing aroma of simmering chicken broth and sauteed onions mingled with the sounds of fond laughter and wistful remembrances during Wednesday's opening-night performance of "Having Our Say."

The first production of Lyric Theatre's 2020 subscription season, the two-woman show frequently feels less like a play and more like a homey visit to a beloved grandparent or great-aunt, especially with scenic designer Debra Kim Sivigny's spot-on recreation of a modest home lavishly adorned with old photographs, family heirlooms and well-tended furniture.

Emily Mann's 1995 fact-based play relates the fascinating life story of centenarians Sadie and Bessie Delany in first-person, fourth wall-busting fashion. Smart and scrappy African-American sisters who were trailblazing 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 oral history book "Having Our Say."

Mann's adaptation has the actors speaking directly to the audience as if the theatergoers are visitors who have come to hear them have their say about their experiences growing up black in 20th-century America, a time of great change that - for better and worse - still has plenty in common with today.
Directed by Monique Midgette, Lyric's production stars seasoned Broadway performers Julia Lema ("Guys and Dolls," "Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music") as Sadie, who died in 1999 at 109, and Terry Burrell ("Dreamgirls," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Swinging on a Star") as Bessie, who died in 1995 at age 104.

Longtime friends, they create a convincing sisterly chemistry, ably shifting from affectionately chatting to angrily spatting in mere moments.

Playing the feisty, hot-tempered Bessie, Burrell earns most of the laughs with her tell-it-like-it-is boldness, particularly when she wrongly predicts that the United States will never elect a black man as president. Portraying the softer, sweeter Sadie, Lema still brings a gentle charisma to the role.

The demanding show calls on the actors to relate a century of personal experiences with some of the darkest aspects of American history - from their complicated family history and their girlhoods in the Jim Crow South to their groundbreaking career accomplishments and their civil rights activism alongside luminaries like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois - while peeling oranges, cutting up vegetables and making macaroni and cheese for a celebratory dinner in their father's memory.

Despite some opening-night tongue trip-ups, the performers proved engaging storytellers as they ably put real-life faces and feelings on incidents that just don't have the same impact when read out of a history textbook.

With performances continuing through March 8, "Having Our Say" also serves as a poignant reminder to call on our elderly relatives - and to take the time to really listen to their stories.

ON STAGE

Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say"

When: Through March 8.

Where: Lyric at the Plaza, 1725 NW 16.

Information and tickets: www.lyrictheatreokc.org or 524-9312.

-BAM

Related Photos
From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]

From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e7a8dd49c162fa80846131b9fc075c21.jpg" alt="Photo - From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]" title="From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]"><figcaption>From left, Terry Burrell plays Bessie and Julia Lema as Sadie in Lyric Theatre's "Having Our Say." [K. Talley Photography]</figcaption></figure>
Brandy McDonnell

Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old entertainment news blog, BAM’s Blog, has notched more than 1... Read more ›

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