Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Old Settler"

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note: entire contents copyright 1999 by Larry Stark

"The Old Settler"

by John Henry Redwood
Directed by Lois Roach

Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland
Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom
Costume Design by Kristin Loeffler
Stage Manager Valerie L. Hilton

Bess Borny................................Jacqui Parker
Quilly McGrath.......Monique Nicole McIntyre
Husband Witherspoon........Ricardo Engerman
Lou-Bessie Preston....................Marie Fenton

I don't know how historic this show actually is, but it's the first time in quite a while that The Lyric Stage of Boston has mounted an entirely Black production. John Henry Redwood's "The Old Settler" is a slice of Negro (sic) life set in 1943, featuring four excellent, experienced Black actors. If the play was chosen in hopes of diversifying the Lyric audience, it worked, for the sprinkling of Black faces in the audience the night I was there was refreshingly heavy, and I hope any new faces will continue to find plays there that will draw them back to this company. But I do wish I liked this play and Lois Roach's direction of it more than I did. Of course, since I am not Black, none of my criticisms can mean very much.

Since I will be critical here, let me offer some credentials. Nearly 20 years ago I went down to the Elma Lewis School for Afro-American Artists and sat waiting till well after curtain-time, when the show's director, James Spruill, plopped down beside me and said "Well, we took a vote backstage as to whether to let you stay or not, but it came out a tie; so it's your decision." I asked him to help me find a Black reviewer, since I didn't think Any kind of theater here should be ignored by my newspaper, but of course I didn't stay. And, about the same time, I remember a long phone-call about another review that protested I was ignoring the show's reach while complaining about its grasp --- my metaphor.

What is Whitey to do in such a situation? There's no defense against the "You'd understand of you were Black" riff, and any supposedly objective technical complaints can be countered with "But we're building our own Black style of theater here!" I am no longer so egotistical as to wonder why anyone could possibly like the things I don't, and in general, when I don't I say nothing at all. But this Is, I suspect, a historic theatrical event, and my friends on stage and backstage are probably already wondering why I've been so silent so long. So this will probably be a long review. And nothing I say will be important.

Before I go into detail, though, let me say I was not at all unhappy with the actors, but with what they were asked to do with what words and characters they'd been given. No one can hide on the intimate Lyric stage, and this ensemble was solidly together every step of the way, and I took delight in details, moments, and nuances that I thought outshone the material.

John Henry Redwood's play consists largely of people explaining things to one another. That's partly because it's set in Harlem in 1943, and most of the ambience, the historical background, and even the slang of the time is unfamiliar. Did "pimp-steak" really mean "hot-dog" then? Who would guess that "an old settler" was an old-maid over forty? Who remembers how close Fort Dix was to New York City? All of these puzzling details have to be explained --- and it's lucky that Husband Witherspoon (Why doesn't anyone explain that weird name!?!) is only three days up in Harlem from a small backwater South Carolina town at the play's opening, so people can explain what he doesn't understand.

But the explaining goes on. Why do unmarried Bessie and her grass-widow sister Quilly unwillingly share a tiny walk-up apartment so expensive they need a boarder? When and why did each move North? What's the unspoken source of their smoldering "fussing" at one another? Why does Quilly only sing the "Woe-Woe" line in their favorite spiritual? Why did Husband come North, with his pockets full of apparently inexhaustible inherited dollars? And why can't he find the wayward fiancee he's chasing? Where is she sleeping on her nights out from her live-in maid's position? And who are the zoot-suited men with conked hair drinking with her at Small's Paradise until two in the morning?

All of that gets explained --- but the explanations sound like, well, like explanations; like foot-notes for the un-hip people watching the play. There's so much explaining and so much exposition of history and background there's little time left for any real life for these characters.

Part of the difficulty is picking 1943 --- admittedly a time of great upheaval for America as well as for Black America. Redwood wants to plug into that upheaval, but his people seem to be talking about it rather than living it. Then too, there are a lot of other details of this second year into World War II that aren't explained --- or even noticed. No blue points and red points and ration-books, no sugar-shortage. There's never a war bulletin on the radio, and people run off to an all-night restaurant oblivious to the port-city blackout --- matter of fact, don't even have blackout curtains when they sit up nights with lights on. Maybe I'm over-sensitive because I was nine when Pearl Harbor was bombed, but I doubt that Black Americans could have been that oblivious to the war effort.

Perhaps all that explaining demands a specific style, but Director Lois Roach either couldn't find or didn't look for subtleties here. Quilly (Monique Nicole McIntyre) is a self-indulgent sloven slouching around in her house-shoes while Bessie (Jacqui Parker) sets limits. Husband (Ricardo Engerman) is a stiff-elbowed boob, a rag-head fresh from the farm and the sawmill, eager to be fleeced. His intended (Maria Fenton) sashays round in glitter-heels displaying her with-it wealth and her indifferent lust for more. They are much less people than stereotypes doing their actorly best to give predictable clichés some human substance.

It's unusual when blocking becomes noticeable, but it is here. Poor Husband has a two-foot square on stage-left where the director has nailed him for nearly all of his long speeches and scenes, most of which are directed away from the other person in the room. He speaks apparently to a door, while further demolishing his battered hat. This may be simply a ploy to have him face the audience and make certain he's heard. It may even be an insight into Black behavior --- I heard somewhere that researchers have found that eye-contact is rare even among Black family members. Nonetheless, on a stage, particularly this stage, it looks damned odd; and it's not the only "favorite space" blocking here, either.

Fact is, with all the explaining and the strange blocking, there is an exaggerated, presentational, over-the-top feel to the show. It's as though these characters were always glancing over their shoulders as if to say to the audience "Catch that, did you?" There are two signpost-lines early in the script that are read as though the director underlined them, three times, in red ink. "Catch that, did you?" Kristin Loeffler's costumes are equally blatant character-clues, particularly Lou Bessie's glad-rags, and both Husband's hick-suit and his shriek-yellow zoot-suit. There's no thought to subtext or understatement, merely surfaces. It's as though everything is acted up a notch or two lest anyone miss anything.

And that may well be an attempt at Black Style acting. It is true that a Black audience, particularly for a comedy, is not only a vocal but a physical participant in the action. At one solid exchange late in the play there was a high-pitched "Woooooo-ee!" from an eager trio up at the back of the audience, and many of the laugh-lines were belted directly toward just such a reacting audience. If the audience were more Black than White, I think there would be much more spontaneous "signifying" rocking the house.

With a house divided, however, a different dynamic was in play. The external style of acting, and the stolid blocking, turned everything into a Black soap-opera, with lots of confrontations and always a clear winner in the exchanges.

Finally, I have a word about casting. The central figure --- a self-contained, honest, sincerely outgoing yet restrained independent woman --- is played by Jacqui Parker with intense low-key focus. At one point I saw her sit and, noticing a throw-pillow was sideways, turn the picture upright before answering her cue. It was a quick, spontaneous gesture so automatic and so unimportant that it spoke from the very insides of the character's being. Parker is a powerful actress, even in such tiny details. She is described here as not just "an old-settler" (i.e., over forty) but an "Old old-settler"; but Jacqui Parker on that stage doesn't read as a day over thirty, and if (as Quilly says at one point) she needs a girdle, then I'm a monkey's uncle. Something must be wrong with the young men of Harlem for such a lovely lady to reach even thirty without a wedding ring on her finger.

Okay, that's the Ofay opinion. I did not think the play or its direction served either its cast or its audience, Black or White or Intermixed, as well as they deserved. Still, any attempts to broaden and diversify the audience for theater deserves support. And, historic or not, this will not, cannot be anything but a beginning. And, about the next play to try the same, rest assured that I always judge, but I never sentence --- and I like to like plays.

Break a leg all...


"The Old Settler" (till 21 November)
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide