A friend stops by the table where Camille Metoyer Moten sits with her sister, Lanette Metoyer Moore, and compliments Camille’s deep purple fingernails.
“Those nails have to come off,” Camille says, days before their two-woman play, Having Our Say, opened Jan. 17 at the Omaha Community Playhouse. “Bessie can’t have glamour nails.”
Lanette plays Sadie and Camille is Bessie, two black sisters who lived more than a century and didn’t want to be called hyphenated African-Americans. They were proud to Americans, despite growing up in the Jim Crow South.
Sadie introduces them as the play begins in the sitting room of their Mt. Vernon, N.Y., home: “Bessie and I have been together since time began, or so it seems. She is 101 years old and I am 103. … After so long, we are in some ways like one person.”
Then Bessie introduces herself as Dr. Delany (she was a dentist, Sadie a teacher), and invites the audience to “Make yourself comfortable. Stay as long as you like. We won’t charge you rent.”
What unfolds is a story told first by a New York Times writer who discovered the Delany sisters, then by Sadie and Bessie in their book and then by Emily Mann who took the book’s title for her play.
When it opened in 1995, the New York Times called it “the most provocative and entertaining family play to reach Broadway in a long time.” For Lanette and Camille, the Metoyer sisters, it’s a chance to perform together for the first time since Camille was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.
They’d both done Queen of Bingo, The Wiz and Once on This Island together at the Playhouse, and Lanette did another two-woman play there, Grace and Glory, with Julie Huff. Camille says, “She’s the actress, and I’m the singer. Camille won Fonda-McGuire awards singing leads in Evita and Funny Girl. Just two days before cancer surgery and before starting the rounds of chemo and radiation, she played one of the leads in the musical All Night Strut for the Playhouse.
After all that, Camille “didn’t miss a thing.” She performed musical gigs and worked at her job.
That causes Lanette to quip, “I’m the one going downhill.”
Both work for Youth Care and Beyond, where Lanette coordinates programs for the developmentally disabled and Camille writes grants. “We don’t see each other at work,” Camille notes, “but we talk every day.”
They’re also active in the same church, One Way Ministry, and share a strong Christian faith. They grew up sharing a bedroom, “but didn’t talk to each other,” Camille recalls. Lanette “was the Queen,” at an age when four years was a big gap.
Raised Catholic, Lanette attended Central High, but Camille went to Burke when the family moved west to 100th street. Lanette went on to Barat College in Illinois, an all-girls Catholic school, and Camille enrolled at Xavier in New Orleans.
They believe their own personalities parallel those of the Delany sisters. Sadie describes herself as “calm and agreeable,” a girl who “always did what I was told.” Bessie “was quick to anger and very outspoken.” Camille calls her sister “very loving,” adding, “I’m more ‘drive the point home.’”As a fourth grader, she joined her parents at a city hall sit-in on behalf of open occupancy to end housing discrimination. Her father, Raymond Metoyer, then head of the Urban League, held her in his arms as police carried him from the room.
She told the author of a Playhouse blog that she was denied the lead in Guys and Dolls at Burke “because my music teacher stated that no black girl was going to kiss a white boy on his stage.”
Such experiences and others that continue today help her relate to the shock felt by the Delany sisters when Jim Crow laws took effect. They’d been sheltered in some ways with two educated parents, their father a school administrator who became the first elected Negro bishop of the Episcopal church. Then the new laws meant they couldn’t enter “white” doors or drink from “white” water fountains.
Telling the stories of Sadie and Bessie, who never married but became successful professional women, means learning lot of lines. “Susie (director Susan Baer Collins) says it’s like each of us has a 22-page monologue,” Camille explained.
The Delanys often finish each other’s sentences or speak in unison. The Omaha sisters got the script over a year ago, and they’ve read the book. “When we’re learning lines,” Lanette smiles, “family members run from us. So we enlisted grandchildren.”
She works with Micah who calls Sadie’s laughs “the witch cackle.” Camille gets help from her granddaughter Meah who thinks she could be Bessie. She tells grandma, “Now we’re going to do these lines and do them right.”
It’s not the only the family that wants to hide from line-learning. After a recent vocal gig in Lincoln, Camile was driving back with her accompanist, David Murphy, when the line work had him threatening, “Let me out, I’ll walk from here.”
Added to the problem of learning lines is that the sisters cook while talking. That’s especially challenging to Camille, “since I don’t cook.” The play has them baking a cake, preparing ambrosia, and cooking a ham.
A week before opening, though, they were reaching the point “where we can enjoy what we’re doing.” They’ll welcome guests as Sadie and Bessie, and they’ll be having their say.
Having Our Say runs Jan. 17-Feb. 9 in the Howard and Rhonda Hawks Main Stage at the Omaha Community Playhouse at 69th and Cass Streets with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35 adults, $21 students. Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.org.