The Old Settler
Theatre Works presented the Northern California premier of John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler and with the production came some marvelous acting from the four principals. I won't try to compare this play to the plays of August Wilson since The Old Settler is more like a soap opera with some insights into the black experiences of the '40s. This play is more a traditional, well-made, realistic drama without Mr Wilson’s inclination for long speeches and signs of mystical symbolism.
The play's off-Broadway run in 1998 with Leslie Uggams was acclaimed by many theater organizations. The American Theatre magazine’s survey said it was the most performed play during the 1998-99 and 1999-00 season. The Old Settler has finally made its way to Northern California.
The drama takes place in 1943 in a Harlem apartment where two elderly sisters live. Both are childless. Elizabeth, age 55, has never been married and she is “an old settler”. In Harlem this means a forty-something woman who’s never been married. Quilly, her 53 year old sister, separated from her husband, is a self centered woman who is tempestuous and tells it like it is. She has the best lines in the play. Elizabeth is a sensible, practical woman who had just one big romance in her life. The first scene is a by play between the two sisters with much dialogue about a funeral they have just attended. The scene establishes the character of the two sisters.
Elizabeth has rented a room to a young man, much to consternation of Quilly who just does not trust this person. Husband is the young man’s name and he is newly arrived in the big city from Frog-more, South Carolina. He is new to big city ways and Quilly says of him “I’ll bet if you took off his shoes, there’d still be chicken doody between his toes”.
Husband, who had lived with and taken care of his mother in South Carolina, left the small country town after the mother died. He came to New York to find his down home girlfriend Lou Bessie. She had preceded him to the big city in search of fame and fortune. Husband is not only looking for Lou Bessie but also a new mother as well as a lover.
Lou Bessie was found, but she is now a Harlem hottie named “Charmagne”. There is a troublesome reunion where Lou Bessie proceeds try to tap into the money of Husband. She drags him through all the clubs in Harlem and then abandons him as she walks out with two servicemen. Husband comes back to the sisters home downhearted. Elizabeth consoles him and Husband finds a new mother and possibly a lover.
I wont devolve the ending of the play since I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not seen the drama. There is a wonderful scene with Elizabeth at the end of the play that is beautifully crafted by the actress and the director.
The play reminds us of how life was, being black in the 1940s. A “colored” person who worked as a house cleaner for a white person was called “kitchen mechanic”. This is the occupation of Bessie who mostly sleeps in the white family house in Great Neck, Long Island. In one of the scenes Husband wants to go to Great Neck to find Lou Bessie but Elizabeth warns him that it is not healthy to be walking around the town since the police will pick him up or the white men will get him. She says things are not that much different up here then in the south.
There is also a memorable scene in the second act in which Quilly tells of of the “sisters” at the temple of prayer who is going to visit her mother in the south for Mother’s day. The church prepared chicken, sandwiches etc. for the sister and her two children to take on the train. The woman and her two children boarded the train at Penn Station and found comfortable seating arrangements. When the train reached Washington DC, they were told there would have to give up their seats for the white folks. They would have to go to the “colored section,” which was the two cars in the front. They went to the front and found the cars packed. The train conductor found that there still was not enough seats for the white folks and as a result many blacks were told to leave the train so the white folks could set in their seats. As a result the woman and her two children had to wait hours and hours for another train to take them south. Quilly told this story in a straight forward manner as if it was expected in the '40s. Very impressive.
The actors in this production were superb - all equity actors with good backgrounds in theater. Judyann Elder, who has extensive television credits, played Elizabeth. She was outstanding, so full of beauty and grace that she could draw a younger man like Husband to her. You could see her desperate need to find love with the younger man. She was amazing in her growing sadness in the last scene of the play. A beautiful performance.
Vickilyn Reynolds, who played Quilly, was remarkable as the younger sister. Her dialogue was covered in cynicism and razor sharp barbs. She played the role in stern rigidity.
Aldo Billingslea, a big hunk of a man, did a remarkable performance as Husband. He has a lanky physique, a slow manner and a smooth drawl. He was a country boy from South Carolina not used to big city ways. However he was very charming.
Comika Griffin had the smallest role as Lou Bessie but in her scenes she displayed the firey talent of a Harlem hottie. She made every moment count when she was on stage.
The set was perfect. It looked like you were on a time travel machine and you were back in 1943. The apartment looks 40’s, floral wall paper on the walls, photograph peppered mantelpiece, radio blearing Cab Calloway or Billie Holiday songs, and every thing associated with a lower middle class apartment of that era. It had a live in space. Also in the first scene of the second act, Husband changes into a pink and orange zoot suit that will knock your socks out. Quilly say he looks like “a runaway from a minstrel show”
The Theatre Works production will run through August 20th and tickets are $20 to $38. It is being presented at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto Ca. Master Class opens on August 30 and runs through September 24.