Black Rep Extends The Old Settler
The Old Settler: A Review
John Henry Redwood’s play, The Old Settler at Black Repertory Group Theatre has been extended April 5-8, Thursday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday, Easter Sunday, 5 p.m. Produced for Women’s History Month, this play looks at the relationships between three generations of women: Elizabeth, Quilly and Lou Bessie, all ironically attached to the apron strings of one Husband Witherspoon (actor Clarence “Ray” Johnson Jr.). It is a play that looks at honor and fidelity, kinship, especially that between women society judges past their prime, as if value could be judged by shelf life or refrigeration—neither the case in the 1940s when one kept items cold with blocks of ice. But I digress. This Bay Area production is directed by Tico “Choir Boy” Wells, one of the original cast members in the play when it first opened at The Mc Carter Theatre in Princeton, NJ and The Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT in 1997. The original production was directed by Walter Dallas. Since then the play has been done numerous times including a television production with Debbie Allen and Phylicia Rashad. The play which boasts a stellar cast at BRGT, also looks at what happens when one migrates north where often, as is the case with the youngest woman, Lou Bessie (Tavia Percia), there is no one waiting for you. The opposite is true for Quilly (Paula Martin) whose sister Elizabeth (Dr. Arletha “Angel” Lands ) provides shelter for her younger sister in Harlem when their mother dies and the younger sister relocates.
I’ve seen several interpretations of The Old Settler and until the current production at Black Rep; I didn’t know there was another way to play it. In the capable hands of this cast and director, the play which is about an older woman who rents a room to a young man and the two fall in love, is deepened when actor Clarence Ray Johnson Jr.’s “Husband,” conveys a genuine love for Elizabeth and the decision reached about their relationship more hers than his. This not only allows Elizabeth’s character more control and a way to save face; it also leaves space for the two sisters to reclaim their severed ties.
Is the playwright hinting here that sisterhood is a stronger bond than any transitory or temporal relationship with a man, young or old? Is he also saying, in his juxtaposition of a young hot thing, Lou Bessie and Elizabeth, who reminds Husband of his recently deceased mother, that when one changes or loses the values which build strong character, then one loses herself, which is what happens to Lou Bessie who compromises, perhaps even leases if not sells her soul, to stay in her beloved Harlem? Husband refuses to follow her lead, even if he seems to follow her everywhere else.
People take a lot when they are lonely; they are also extremely vulnerable when they are alone as well. Elizabeth is prime for the take, yet, this Husband is gentle with her and I appreciate that, especially in 2012 when The Old Settler Factor is real for a lot of women who are getting infected with HIV disease, losing their homes and possessions to men younger than they. And then there is Lou Bessie who one cannot altogether fault for playing her cards right to get with the in -crowd, even if that means sleeping with her child’s father, Bucket, at night, while cleaning for a white woman, by day. She latches onto Husband, flattered he came north to find her. She also knows he has land and money, so why not "play" or take advantage of the country hick? However, Clarence Ray Johnson Jr.’s character might be from a small town, but he certainly is not small minded or as naïve or in love as she thinks. A single mother, whose child is being raised by her mother back home, Lou Bessie a.k.a. Charmaine seems to be careening along in a caboose without a driver.
Just because one is called an old settler, and in Elizabeth’s case “an old old settler,” does not mean the woman is willing to “settle.” She is excited and in love, but she is not a fool. Perhaps if John Henry Redwood would have pushed the envelope and let the affair work out as it might have if set in another place or time. One wonders if when there is a span of over ten years between partners is it love or lust or usury or a little of both?
The set and sound design are also really wonderful. BRGT is located at 3201 Adeline Street, Berkeley. For information call (510) 652-2120. Visit http://blackrepertorygroup.com/Main_Stage.html