When Shauneille Perry’s screen adaptation of John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler appeared on television in 2001, real life sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen became synonymous with the fictional sisters Elizabeth “Bess” Borny and Quilly McGrath. The original play was performed live at The McCarter Theater in 1997 (Brenda Pressley and Myra Lucretia Taylor as Bess & Quilly) and at Primary Stages (Leslie Uggams & Lyunda Gravátt as the sisters)but thanks to PBS television, the screen adaptation became an instant success and a classic for audiences unfamiliar with those original stage productions. However, actresses portraying Elizabeth and Quilly in subsequent productions of The Old Settler would forever be compared with those signature performances of the famous sister duo of Rashad and Allen. Therein lies the challenge for the current production of Redwood’s play at the newly renovated Billie Holliday Theatre in Brooklyn’s Restoration Plaza.
Upon seeing the set which meticulously reproduced the interior of a WWII era apartment in Harlem, I knew there was something special about this particular show. I was pleased to discover the set design wasn’t the only thing that was special. Kudos to Dr. Indira Etwaroo, the Executive Director of RestorationART which includes the Billie Holiday Theatre and Michelle Shay, Tony-nominated, Award winning actress, director and Negro Ensemble Company alum, who deftly directed this wonderful interpretation of Redwood’s award winning play.
For those folks who have been living on Saturn for the last two decades, The Old Settler is the tale of two sisters, Elizabeth (“Bess”) a spinster or an “old settler” ( i.e. a woman middle aged woman who never married and never shared a physically intimate relationship with a man) and Quilly, whose husband has left her for someone else. It is the 1943. The two sisters share an apartment in Harlem and live reserved, dignified, church centered lives. Quilly works as a domestic for a rich white woman and Elizabeth takes in boarders. Elizabeth rents a room to Husband Witherspoon, a handsome young man in his twenties, who has migrated from the deep south to Harlem in search of his down home sweet heart, Lou Bessie Preston. Husband Witherspoon is a tall, strapping country boy whose mother has died. He longs to reconnect with Lou Bessie, an ambitious party girl who uses men to get what she wants, and what she mainly wants is a good time. In an effort to appear sophisticated, Lou Bessie has assumed a new name i.e. Charmaine. After learning that Husband has come looking for her with money in his pocket, she shows up at Elizabeth’s door flaunting her new “sophisticated” persona. Elizabeth and Quilly regard her as a loose woman lacking moral principles. Despite Lou Bessie’s youth and obvious sex appeal, Husband proposes to Elizabeth promising to love and care for her. To Quilly’s chagrin, Elizabeth accepts Husband’s proposal, resulting in a barrage of accusations and suppressed hurts from the past.
COUGAR VERSUS SPINSTER
For younger people, the romantic relationship between a much older woman and a younger man might not seem so unusual as it would have been prior to the popularization of the “cougar” stereotype. When Quilly admonishes Elizabeth for what she perceives as foolish infatuation with the young man, Elizabeth responds that nobody would care if the age difference were the other way around. ‘Men do it all the time.’ Indeed, men have been chasing and mating with girls young enough to be their daughters and even granddaughters for millennia. The Old Settler reminds us that the tender feelings of love and the desire for intimacy do not end with menopause. Women beyond natural childbearing years remain attractive and hold a certain fascination for younger men. How much of that fascination is a subconscious longing for the mother, (or father when it comes to younger women) and the need for nurturing and protection is a question for the psychology books. One could argue seeking such qualities holds true no matter the age. But this is a review, not a psychology class.
When Quilly reminds Elizabeth that Husband’s sexual needs may be more than she can accommodate on a regular basis as well as his future desire for children she will be incapable of producing, the double standard for older men with younger women takes on a practical reality that supports the patriarchal perspective of marriage i.e. satisfying the male’s needs for unlimited sexual access and the birthing of heirs. But human relationships are much more complicated that mere reproduction. Redwood’s play reminds us that the human need for companionship and love never diminishes despite increasing years. It also shows that wisdom and dignity are gained at a price which can feel unbearable. That companionship takes many forms, not only between men and women, but also between siblings.
This production of The Old Settler features Pauletta Pearson Washington as Elizabeth and Denise Burse as Quilly. At minimum, this dynamic duo stand shoulder to shoulder with Rashad and Allen in their portrayals of Elizabeth and Quilly. In fact, there is no comparison. Pearson Washington and Burse stand firmly on clean ground.
Denise Burse breathes new life into Quilly, the feisty younger sister as she bustles about the apartment fussing at Elizabeth, complaining about working for “[her]white woman,” yelling at the neighbor on the party line to get off the phone, and admonishing her older sister for taking in the worthless stranger whom she doubts can even afford to pay any rent at all. As the tensions between Quilly and Elizabeth rise, Burse’s performance resonates fierce love tainted with guilt and jealousy at the thought of losing her sister to what she believes a heartache in the making. She plays Quilly with all the humor and pathos Redwood put into the character, with a little added spice. Burse is a joy to behold and a sure bet for nods from AUDELCO and beyond.
As for Ms. Pearson Washington, the role of Elizabeth fits her like a sequined glove. Elizabeth has lived in a safe, secure world for decades. While not rich, she if fairly comfortable in her home, renting rooms to boarders. She has found a space in which to live out a quiet if uneventful existence. When Husband arrives, she experiences a profound change which reignites old passions long suppressed. Ms. Pearson-Washington has enjoyed celebrity status beside her famous husband, Denzel Washington for many years, standing by his side, supporting his incredible career. Audiences were largely unaware that Pauletta’s background was also in the performing arts. In recent years, Pauletta Pearson Washington has revived her own acting career performing onstage on both coasts. In The Old Settler, Ms. Pearson Washington spreads her butterfly wings and soars. Elizabeth is a woman who has settled, but not completely. Pearson Washington’s Elizabeth is akin to the stillness of trees in winter which appear all but dead, even while life pulses within and if one looks closely, one can see the buds of new leaves anticipating the warmth of spring’s return. It is that same anticipation which makes Pauletta’s performance intense, earthy and nuanced. As she resorts to washing dishes, fixing meals in the kitchen, moving about her home with the deliberate busy-ness of a woman on the verge of something big, she walks the line between nurture and desire, and we feel it with her. When Ms. Pearson Washington sings, we enjoy another dimension of this wonderfully talented artist who stands in nobody else’s shadow. She flies high as the spinster woman whose nurturing blossoms into romantic love for the handsome albeit country Romeo in search of his Bess.
THE BEST BESS? A TALE OF TWO WOMEN NAMED BESS
Thinking about these characters, I recall Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen of England, also known as “Bess” and “Bess” the redeemed prostitute from Porgy and Bess, and I realize Redwood’s choice of these names is no coincidence. Redwood ingeniously names both women in Husband’s life “Bess.” The young, hot Lou Bessie (aka Charmaine) and the mature, wise Elizabeth aka “Bess.” Like the other aforementioned two Besses, these two women are different sides of the same coin, archetypal women that push or punish men to move beyond their comfort zones. Husband needs the older Bess to provide the nurturing foundation necessary to discern what and who is good or bad for him. The younger Lou Bessie (aka Charmaine) ignites his passion to move him out of his restricted existence in the rural south and discover new opportunities up north.
Warner Miller is all that Husband Witherspoon should be. Tall, handsome, strong, sexy and stupidly naïve. We used to say “young, dumb and full o’ cum.” The boy next door who really wants to sleep with his girlfriend’s momma and doesn’t seem to understand the contradiction. He is the young man who loves his mother first and foremost. He’s the kind who you want to take to your bosom. Hmmmm… The man-child whose backwoods innocence in the face of the dangerously enticing world of Harlem in the 1940’s belies a sophisticated understanding of right and wrong and a self-confidence gained from hard work in the south gives him a strength and deliberateness missing in city slickers. Warner Miller embodies these characteristics. His portrayal is physical. He is comfortable in his body. His comedic timing is right on! He responds to whoever is in the scene, on stage, in the world with him. We enjoy him enjoying himself caught between his own needs and desires. Warner Miller has added another dimension to Husband that is simultaneously sly and naïve and always, always charming.
Maechi Aharanwa. Her name may evoke ideas of serious characters, most likely in a play about Africa or liberation or something like that; perhaps playing Sophie or Salima in Ruined. In fact, Maechi Aharanwa is an incredibly bitchy, snarky, ‘I’m-gonna-make something-of-myself-no-matter-who-I-have-to-step-on-or-over’ Lou Bessie (aka Charmaine). When we first meet her, she has already transformed herself from old school, down home ignorant baby mama to Miss Charmaine of Harlem. Aharanwa plays this character with the energy of a contemporary hip hop artist who knows she’s gonna make it big. She springs Lou Bessie to life onstage in a huge way and sometimes steals the scene. Her Lou Bessie is bold and determined to succeed. She is shapely and her clothing brings obvious attention to her physical attributes, an in-your-face challenge to the mature, modestly attired Elizabeth and Quilly. Aharanwa almost bounces across the stage, her hairstyle evoking the white movie goddesses of the era like Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers and Betty Grable. Like today’s twenty-somethings, her Lou Bessie (aka Charmaine) defers to no one. Even as she imitates pop icons, she is calculating her next move. She will not take no for an answer. All that’s missing is the cell phone in her hand, which one could imagine she’d definitely be using if they had cell phones in the 1940’s. I loved her Lou Bessie (aka Charmaine) because she played the character as the young woman Lou Bessie would have been in real life. Today, Lou Bessie could be a grandmother or even great grandmother to the twenty somethings in the audience who don’t realize that once upon a time, that elder sitting at home in their recliner watching BET was young and bold, finger poppin’, sometimes fighting and cussing, dancing at the club, enjoying sensual pleasures even while working below minimum wage jobs, facing blatant racism daily, negotiating systemic discrimination, and all the other not-so-good aspects of “back in the day” “the greatest generation” life camouflaged in film clips of young, beautiful Lena Horne leaning against a pillar singing Stormy Weather and Duke Ellington and his band looking perfect and smooth playing Take The A Train and happy to be there
Michelle Shay’s work was gorgeous. Why? Because you don’t notice it. Nuff said. Her credits are numerous. Google her name.
Earlier, I mentioned the set design. I loved it down to the white ruffled organza curtains. It reminded me of apartments I visited as a child, full of antiques and dusty perfume and chrysanthemums in cut glass vases in the parlor where articulate old ladies sipped tea and conversed in hushed tones in Harlem. My one pet peeve with this fabulous show was the inconsistency of certain props that were out of place in an otherwise charmingly appropriate set. Someone please tell me if that brown plastic pitcher that looked like it came from the local discount store was “era appropriate” when a timeless glass pitcher could’ve easily been found for under ten bucks at the local Goodwill? Also, the NY Times? Really? The purpose of the set and props is to set the mood, the atmosphere. First of all, headlines blast dates. Besides, couldn’t Elizabeth have been reading a 1940’s copy of The Amsterdam News instead? And when she took the subway map from the drawer to give it to Husband, I cringed. Anyone could see it was a 21st century map. Better to have written the directions on a piece of paper and handed them to him than that! When so much attention was paid to other details of the set, it was disappointing to see these small but significant items detracted from the overall production values.
The costumes were also colorful and appropriate to the era and the characters although I wondered if the satin robe worn by Elizabeth was really “era correct.” It seemed a bit modern, but I’m no expert when it comes to that. Still, I would’ve appreciated seeing her in a different robe, perhaps thick, white chenille, indicative of her virginal status as a pure spinster woman.
The lighting and sound were appropriate and worked well for everyone, with music from the era playing where it should be.
Overall, this production of The Old Settler deserves accolades and a full house for all remaining performances. AUDELCO nominations are in order for the whole cast and director!!! Kudos for Costumes too. If the set designer/props people double check those minor but significant details, there may be even more nominations in the wings. It is such a pleasure to attend a great play and enjoy the collaboration in front of me. More audiences deserve to see it. I hope the run can be extended. Most of all, I hope that John Henry Redwood’s spirit is watching and enjoying this new iteration of his timeless play. If he is, I bet he’s smiling.
Runs through Sunday, November 19th at The Billie Holiday Theatre
1368 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY
A/C Trains to Nostrand Avenue Stop
For information and tickets visit: www.thebillieholiday.org Discount code: Family1943