By John Henry Redwood
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
At Writers’ Theatre, Glencoe
Emotionally wrenching period drama beautifully performed.
Writers’ Theatre is always wonderful, having amassed years of excellent work that makes them among the finest theatre companies in the Chicagoland area. Artistic director Michael Halberstam enlisted director Ron OJ Parson to direct actor- turned-playwright John Henry Redwood’s brilliant drama-The Old Settler-a powerful and sensitive family drama. Kudos to Writers’ Theatre for mounting a fresh story about an era in the American Experience that never gets covered in theatre–the Harlem Renaissance during World War II.
It spring of 1943 in Harlem, Elizabeth (the fabulous Cheryl Lynn Bruce) and her sister Quilly (Wandachristine) are sharing and, at time bickering, their quiet lives together. Elizabeth, in need of some rent relief, takes in a young male border-Husband Witherspoon (Kelvin Roston, Jr.)-a recent arrival from South Carolina. Husband is a sweet, naive, mama’s boy who arrives in Harlem to find his lost love-Lou Bessie (Alexis J. Rogers).
Husband finds life in Harlem bewildering and Lou Bessie’s life style crude and manipulative. Confused, Husband turns to Elizabeth for comfort, understanding and companionship. While Quilly ardently disapproves of Elizabeth getting too close to Husband, Elizabeth–although knowing it is dangerous-allows her passion to overwhelm her. Quilly believes that Husband is really searching for a mother substitute and eventually he’ll hurt Elizabeth.
With hints of August Wilson, The Old Settler is filled with old African-American folklore and witty sayings. An ‘old settler’ is an old maid–a middle aged woman who has never married. The dialogue is filled with comic zingers inherent in the tragic stories from the Black Experience in America.
One of the most impressive elements of Redwood’s play is his ability to create common folks–especially woman with so much honesty and heart that we want to spend time with them. Jack Magaw’s extremely detail apartment set filled with 1940’s furnishings and items (prop design by Sarah E. Ross) together with Nan Cibula-Jenkins authentic period costumes and hats added realism to the story.
Elizabeth exudes warmth, integrity, gentleness and dignity. Cheryl Lynn Bruce gives her a vulnerability that saddens. Wandachristine plays Quilly as both a decent, church-going woman and as an emotionally scared possessive younger sister. The love between the two battling sisters is tested over Husband. Issues such as the Harlem lifestyle, sensitivity, loneliness and following one’s passion are dramatically presented.
The Old Settler is told in rich, poetic language with loads of sincerity as the poignant bonds of sisterhood are tested. Can the sisters forgive and garner the strength to endure? See this wonderful play to experience the dignity and power of love. What a “find” – The Old Settler is beautiful.