Meet the Artist

A Conversation with Actress Brenda Pressley

By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Brenda PressleyWhat most interested you in Having Our Say and the opportunity to portray Dr. Bessie Delany?

I read the book when it was first published and fell in love with these two women. I did not want the book to end – I was just that taken with the story. It was one of the loveliest experiences I’ve ever had reading a book, knowing what these two women were able to achieve – not only through their education – but as human beings during a very hostile environment in our country for people of color. They transcended all of that. The book really started that fascination for me, and then I saw the play. I remember it was a Sunday matinee, and I saw these two wonderful actresses portray these fabulous women. And now, many years later – I have the extreme honor of portraying Dr. Bessie Delany.

What have you learned about yourself from portraying Bessie? Do you see any of her in you?

I see bits and pieces of Bessie in me. She was quite the spitfire, and I know that I can be quite the spitfire on occasion! In taking on this role, I realized that I’m stronger than I thought I was – by digging my heels in and saying “Okay, I got this.” Bessie took no prisoners. As an actor, I had to be completely free of any trepidation and just go for it on stage in a way that I’ve never had to before. Bessie has given me the strength to do that, and it’s been wonderful.

Brenda Pressley as Dr. Bessie Delany in 'Having Our Say'
Brenda Pressley as Dr. Bessie Delany in Having Our Say

Did you find it challenging taking on the role of an actual person?

It is a challenge. There are big shoes to fill here – and what magnificent shoes they are! Bessie and Sadie’s ability to share their stories has enriched millions of lives. They were actual forces of nature. Here were two sisters in Mount Vernon, both over one hundred years of age, still with all of their mental faculties, and we are the recipients of their wonderful history. This could have easily gone by without anyone knowing except their immediate family and friends. But fate took its course; and they’re more than deserving of the best work any actor could put forth in portraying their lives.

Having our Say is a perfect example of the art of storytelling as a way to preserve history through the ages. What message do you think this play sends to today’s youth?

No matter your race, gender, age, economic background – with determination in your heart and mind to achieve your dreams and be the very best human being you can be – all things are possible.

In the play, the Delany sisters prepare an elaborate meal in honor of their father’s birthday. How much of a challenge was it for you to balance acting and cooking?

It took us days to get all of that blocking in our heads and bodies. With patience, focus and time, we got it! Now, it’s almost like second nature. Our wonderful director, Jade King Carroll, was extremely loving and patient throughout the process.

Who in your own life has been most inspirational to you?  What historical event in your lifetime has been most important to you?

My mother, Arzelle Pressley, was so much like these two sisters – a lovely combination of the two. She was an educator in South Carolina in the 1940s until she retired in the 1970s. Her strong values and sense of self guided me throughout my life. She passed away five years ago at the age of 91. She was a spectacular woman who worked hard and dreamed big.

The most exciting historical event that I can bring to mind would be the election of Barack Hussein Obama as President of the United States. I am a child of the South: I remember segregation, and I remember my parents being very much a part of the Civil Rights Movement in Columbia, South Carolina. I know that both my parents and their friends would have been thrilled by this event in our country’s history. That is the biggest regret of my life so far – that my mother, who was in poor health at the time, was unable to fully realize that moment. Not only would it have been wonderful for my mother, but also for the Delany sisters.

Brenda Pressley and Olivia Cole. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.
Brenda Pressley and Olivia Cole. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

This play marks a reunion for you and Olivia Cole, who you worked with on television’s Brewster Place. Did this make it easier for you both to transition into portraying the Delany Sisters?

Olivia and I became very dear friends many years ago when we worked together on the television series Brewster Place. Our bond remained strong over the years. The moment we saw each other when we arrived in New Haven, we fell into each other’s arms, and we were off and running. It’s certainly been to our advantage to have had that history. We have the highest regard for each other professionally, and we are crazy about each other personally.

What do you hope that audiences will take away with them after seeing Having Our Say?

The human spirit is indomitable. No matter what you are dealt in life, if you so choose – you can conquer anything. The Delany sisters were perfect examples of that – I am in awe of these women. Our world would indeed be a much better place if we took the time to realize our individual power, as they did, and acknowledge the same in our fellow man.