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|A CurtainUp Review
The Old Settler
By Les Gutman
For most of us born after the Second World War, the extent of our understanding of the war years, combat or at home, is defined by what we glean from movies, television, books and, of course, the theater. It is a picture most often drawn with broad, heroic strokes. Anything we might be shown of life in Harlem during this period is likely to suggest something exciting and a bit naughty. John Henry Redwood's play, The Old Settler, takes place in Harlem, 1943, but it chooses a different, overlooked story to tell.
Redwood's focus is on a family that's "almost over": two middle-aged sisters who now live together. The older, Elizabeth (Leslie Uggams), never married; the younger, Quilly (Lynda Gravatt), once had a husband but is now single and working as a domestic. When Elizabeth -- called Bess -- decides to take in a male roomer, Husband Witherspoon (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.), a young man just arrived from South Carolina and in search of his girlfriend, something unforeseen happens -- Bess and Husband fall in love. (She is "old enough to be his mother".) Quilly is beside herself, but no more so than the woman Husband followed to New York, Lou Bessie (Rosalyn Coleman). The latter, now a two-timing denizen of that other, more familiar side of Harlem not on display here, has changed her name to Charmaine. She uses the naive, countrified Husband (she now calls him Andre) like a yo-yo.
The Old Settler is a study in naturalism. Redwood has written in a style that suits the era in which it is set so perfectly we feel transported back to the 40's ourselves. Harold Scott's staging harmonizes with deliberate detail. The set, an old-fashioned parlor behind which we see a central hall connecting the entry to the sisters' sleeping area and a raised kitchen, is especially effective. In wartime homes, the center of attention was the radio, and so it is here. Carefully chosen reproductions of radio broadcasts not only set tone, but also ingeniously keep time. Carefully crafted costumes likewise tell an enormous part of this story as the contrasting and changing fashions of the three women telegraph their moods and attitudes. (Don't miss the lobby display on their designs.)
Redwood's strength is in the meticulous rendering of a family portrait. On the one hand, it reveals the values and the frustrations of Bess and Quilly in the pre-civil rights era, reacting both to indignities suffered at the hands of whites and to the disrespect shown within their own community. On the other hand, it transcends time and place, poignantly uncovering the shifting and growing understanding that underlies the relationship of siblings as they reach a certain age.
He is also quite good at depicting a certain oddly-empowering sense of humor: domestics call themselves "kitchen mechanics"; Quilly calls her employer "my white woman"; hot dogs are "pimp steaks". Quilly sustains the play's energy by conveying her emotions via this sort of humor. She expresses fear, outrage (brilliantly highlighted through her running battle with the woman with whom they share a party-line) and fatigue with as much earnestness as amusement.
The play is not as strong in developing the two other characters or the plot. We learn hardly anything about Husband or Lou Bessie that doesn't seem overly caricatured. When it becomes time to move the story along, we are unsatisfied having to rely on exaggerated traits to explain how we were transported. We want to find Simmons endearing as Husband, but he is unable to unearth any underlying motivation for his character's actions. Coleman, by contrast, is simply lost. Out of step and most likely miscast, she substitutes over-the-top, cartoonishness for any revelation of character. The only function I see for her character is to give the play its title. She hurls it at Elizabeth. Contrary to our intuition, it's an insult, referring, we learn, to a woman "pushing forty and not married".
But no matter. The central focus here is not on plot or peripheral characters, and the exquisite performances of the two sisters more than redeem any shortcomings. Gravatte is marvelously at home in her portrayal of Quilly, whether hyperbolically reacting to some indignity or summoning her inner feelings to reach close to what really matters to her. Leslie Uggams is in masterful control of Elizabeth, sensitively ranging from austere to love-struck to love-pained to wiser. It is a performance measured not so much by the words she utters as by her reactions: a smile, a tear, a look; the way she turns her head, holds her lips, stares into space.
I give nothing away when I say there is a lengthy period toward the end of the play when no words are spoken. It's a most touching theatrical experience. This may not be a perfect play, but its successes are ample to justify its recent popularity in regional theater and its current run off-Broadway.