Portrait in Black
John Henry Redwood's people have unusual names like Lou Bessie and Bucket and Husband, and they hail from places with even stranger names, like Frogmore. In Redwood's beautifully written The Old Settler, these people all end up in Harlem, where they change their names and attempt to alter their identities. They fail, but -- in the Black Theatre Troupe's new production of Redwood's play (which was an off-Broadway success starring Cicely Tyson a few seasons ago) -- watching them fail is a pleasure.
It's 1943, and Quilly McGrath (Evelyn Brown-Gray) is unhappy that her older sister, Elizabeth (Rico Burton), has rented a room in their Harlem apartment to a young fellow named Husband (Zee Grigsby). He's there in search of his girlfriend, Lou Bessie (Toni Robinson), who left their home in Frogmore, South Carolina, to hustle the jazz clubs and make a new life for herself. Quilly takes exception when Elizabeth and Husband begin an affair, because the neighbors are whispering about the young man and the "old settler" ("a woman pushing 40 whom has never been married and has no prospects"). When Lou Bessie, who has christened herself Charmaine, arrives, Elizabeth's romance is derailed and the sisters' own indiscretions are revealed.
Redwood's principal themes of identity and acceptance are played out in a story that divides itself between comedy and drama, racism and family relationships. We're drawn in by anecdotes and funny bits, then startled by a solemn revelation about the folks we've been laughing at. Redwood's device also works in reverse, to banish the bathos from his story: A particularly fierce quarrel between the sisters will end with an impromptu song, or another player will enter wearing a particularly ridiculous costume.
There are all kinds of subtext here: The male lead is a man whose mother named him Husband and who is chasing after a woman nearly twice his age; the black people who leave their small-town lives for the big city take on French names and swanky identities, but can't escape racial prejudice. Redwood neither dwells on the evils of racism in World War II-era America nor denies it: His commentary on race relations is relegated to stories told by the principals, as when Quilly tells of a family trying to get to Georgia but is put off the train in Washington, D.C., because there were white travelers who needed their seats.
Redwood is equally unsentimental about his characters. Both slutty Lou Bessie and vain, draft-dodging Husband provide stereotypically negative images of blacks of the era, and the bitter personal histories of Elizabeth and Quilly reflect the sometimes sad lives that African-American women led. There's no sermon here on forgiving the unkind society that helped shape these people, but there's no diatribe on the evils of the white man, either.
The acting, for the most part, is superb. Brown-Gray's head-wagging, finger-shaking Quilly gives the production a presence that no one else can provide. Burton is outstanding as a sad figure of regret who contemplates running off with a much younger man. Toni Robinson, beaming and sassy in one perfectly garish Carol Simmons costume after another, is a mesmerizing incarnation of post-Cotton Club glamour. Unfortunately, Zee Grigsby can't keep up; his performance is stiff and unimaginative, filled with vacant stares and senseless struttings.
A competent director might have helped Grigsby realize his role. But Kenneth Daugherty's infirm direction creates great, gaping silences between scenes, leaving actors to fiddle with props or ad lib endlessly.
(At the performance I attended, the audience filled up these long pauses -- and nearly every other moment of the rest of the evening -- with dialogue of their own. The couple in front of me talked incessantly throughout the show, while the folks behind me spoke directly to the actors. Perhaps the management could post a sign in the lobby for future performances: "This is a theater, not a revival meeting.")
Despite these distractions and the show's directorial shortcomings, Redwood's writing shines through. The Old Settler is a beautifully realized play that delivers an urgent message about isolation without being preachy.
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