Despite his own success on stage and in films, actor John Henry Redwood was frustrated with the lack of quality roles for Black actors. This frustration led him to playwriting, and now, twenty years after his death, his plays endure. “The Old Settler,” first performed in the 1990s, is his best-known work. Now, as the centerpiece of their 2023-2024 season, Bowie Community Theatre has made this tale of love and heartache their own.
…this play delivers…a thought-provoking treat that will have you laughing, crying, and longing for a hug from a lost family member. Don’t miss this engaging production!
Set in Harlem in 1943, the plot revolves around two middle-aged sisters. Practical Elizabeth has spent her life making sacrifices for others. She is an “old settler,” the Harlem colloquial term for spinster. Outspoken Quilly is recently divorced. Their lives are orderly and predictable until they take in a handsome, young boarder, Husband Witherspoon, from the rural community of Frogmore, South Carolina. He has come to New York searching for Lou Bessie, his girlfriend who left their hometown eight months earlier while he stayed behind to care for his dying mother.
Husband intends to find Lou Bessie, marry her, and return to Frogmore. Lou Bessie, however, is not about to give up city-living to be a farm wife. She now calls herself “Charmaine” and spends her evenings in night clubs. She stays with an ex-lover, the father of the child she left behind in South Carolina for her mother to raise. Her only interest in Husband is the inheritance he received upon his mother’s death.
Elizabeth is charmed by Husband, but Quilly is skeptical of both his intentions and his ability to survive in New York City. When a relationship blossoms between Husband and Elizabeth, Quilly is quick to point out the flaws in their May-December romance, and we learn this is not the first time a man has come between the sisters.
“Old Settler” is sometimes funny and sometimes heartbreaking, but always poignant. With the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and World War II as its backdrop, this play delivers, not just entertainment, but a slice of history and relevant social commentary on the Jim Crow South and the racism that persists in America today.
Perhaps it is Director Lorraine Brooks’ roots in Harlem that give this modern classic heart and soul. Under her direction, the small cast is nothing short of magnificent. Native New Yorker Jennifer Thomas is radiant as the long-suffering, but hopeful, Elizabeth. Her tender, heart-felt performance earns a standing ovation and leaves the audience in tears.
As the sharp-tongued, quick-witted Quilly, Dionne Belk gives an outstanding performance with perfect comedic timing. The chemistry between Thomas and Belk makes “The Old Settler” a true love story, not of romance, but of the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood.
Brock Brown proves he is leading man material. He demonstrates a strong stage presence and is believable as the naïve Husband. Washingtonian Shiesha McNeil shines as the self-absorbed Lou Bessie.
In addition to splendid acting, the Bowie Community Theatre’s production of “The Old Settler” also offers a realistic set that captures the era. Furnished in what we would today call “shabby-chic,” Elizabeth and Quilly’s apartment is tidy and reflects the values of working-class Harlem. The sofa, chairs, and other furnishings look worn, but well-cared for. Sepia-tinted and black-and-white photos of loved ones adorn the walls and tabletops. The faded, vintage-looking wallpaper is the work of Set Painting Supervisor Rose Hull. She and the entire crew are to be commended for creating a “home” for the characters we love.
In short, “The Old Settler” is more than a delightful way to spend an evening or a Sunday afternoon. It is a thought-provoking treat that will have you laughing, crying, and longing for a hug from a lost family member. Don’t miss this engaging production!
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
“The Old Settler” runs through December 10, 2023, excluding November 24-26, presented by Bowie Community Theatre at The Bowie Playhouse, White Marsh Park, Route 3 South, Bowie, MD 20716. For more information and to purchase tickets, go online.