It's all coming back to them now. Camille Metoyer Moten, 59, remembers being with her father during a civil rights protest at Omaha's City Hall when she was 9, fighting for the right of African-Americans to live wherever they want in the city.
Lanette Metoyer Moore, 63, can also see herself in her mind's eye, a little girl marching down 24th Street elbow to elbow with civil rights leaders.
Moore and Moten, sisters in real life, are starring as the Delany sisters in “Having Our Say,” a stage dramedy that opens Friday at the Omaha Community Playhouse. The play follows the Delanys through a century of experience as African-American women, pioneers for their race and gender.
“Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters' First 100 Years,” the 1993 book on which the play is based, traces civil rights history through the true-life story of the Delanys, who left North Carolina to escape Jim Crow laws, witnessed the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s and earned advanced college degrees rare for women or blacks at that time. The book was on the New York Times best-seller list for 105 weeks.
Moten and Moore are widely known in Omaha's theater community for their acting talents. The Playhouse featured Moore in “Crowns” in 2007, while Moten starred in “Ragtime” the year before.
What locals might not know is that, growing up, the two lived at the epicenter of the civil rights movement in Omaha. Their late father, Ray Metoyer, was president of the Nebraska Urban League. A photo of Ray holding Camille, waiting to be arrested at the City Hall protest, appeared in newspapers coast to coast.
In a way, the sisters were born to play Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, 101, and Sarah “Sadie” Delany, 103.
Director Susan Baer Collins said she's wanted to stage “Having Our Say” ever since she saw a professional touring production that originated at Creighton University's then-new Lied Center in the late 1990s. But the play had technical challenges, calling for overhead projections that highlight historical events. The Delanys also cook onstage together as they chat with the audience, requiring a working stove and a hefty grocery bill.
The play sat on a back burner for years. But as the Metoyer sisters matured as women and actresses, Collins reached a moment when she knew they would be credible as the Delanys. She asked, and they said yes.
“They are gifted women I would want to have tell me stories for two hours,” Collins said before a recent rehearsal. “And their lives are just as inspiring and adventurous and dramatic as the Delanys' in their own way. Working on this play has unleashed a bunch of stories about their own lives.”
Camille remembers going to a downtown Chinese restaurant with her family and being refused entrance. She was too little to understand why. Her mother explained that in life she would encounter “people who don't like you, even though they don't know who you are.”
Lanette recalls a schoolmate at Sacred Heart Elementary who begged to go to her home and play. Because both Camille and Lanette have light complexions, the little girl was shocked to discover that Lanette's mother was black.
“After that, she didn't want to come over,” Lanette recalled. “It hurt me. It was my first encounter with racism.”
Like her character, Bessie, who almost got herself lynched, Camille has been more strident at times in confronting racism. Lanette, like Sadie, found ways to work around the rules.
The Delanys' mother was a school administrator, and their father was the first African-American elected an Episcopal bishop in the United States. Like the Delanys, the Metoyers put a premium on education. Both their girls earned college degrees. Just as the Delanys did, the Metoyers moved to a white neighborhood, 99th and Manderson Streets, in 1966 because the schools were better.
“We did encounter racism,” Moore recalls. The day the family moved in, white men gathered in the cul de sac and pointed at the house in agitation. She also remembers the house being egged, nails thrown in the driveway, and her grandfather standing armed guard for fear the house would be torched. But, she said, there were wonderful white neighbors as well.
Also like the Delanys, the Metoyers had white members in their ancestral tree. Light complexions have historically been considered a plus in the black community, harkening back to a time when light-skinned slaves would be selected as household workers rather than field hands, Moten said. But she rejected a caste system based on skin tones, often wishing she had darker skin like other members of her family.
“There's a line in the show about it,” Moten said. “Our parents always taught us it doesn't matter your shade. If people are racist, you're just black.”
The Metoyer sisters also share the Delanys' strength derived from their Christian faith. Today, their civil rights activism is tempered by spiritual belief.
“If I didn't have that, I'd be more militant than I am,” Moten said.
“We rely on God to take care of the situation,” Moore said.
Moore said her granddaughter, 7, is infatuated with the play.
“The most beautiful thing I can leave my granddaughter is this wonderful story about two women who, in their own way, were trailblazers,” Moore said. “Faith was their most important thing, too.”