Reviewed by Shirley Hawkins
The Old Settler is an Engrossing Play.
Set in bustling Harlem in 1943, The Old Settler unveils the tale of two middle aged sisters—Elizabeth (Ruby Hinds) and her younger sister Quilly (Jolie Oliver)–who share an apartment. But things turn topsy turvy when to help pay the rent, Elizabeth takes in a young male border named Husband (John Roderick Davidson) with hilarious and poignant results.
Husband is a 29-year-old former saw mill worker from Frogmore, North Carolina who arrives in Harlem searching for his childhood sweetheart, Lou Bessie Preston (Crystal Garrett). Quilly is resentful that Elizabeth has invited Husband to live with them without her knowledge. While Elizabeth is gracious and hospitable to Husband, a humble country boy, Quilly resents Husband’s presence and continually mocks his naïve country ways.
“All the people in church are talking about how we’re living with that boy,” Quilly complains.
Husband has plans to marry Lou Bessie and take her back to North Carolina, but he receives the shock of his life when he finally reunites with Lou Bessie, who has abandoned her country ways and become citified. Cunning and ruthlessly ambitious, Lou Bessie has even shunned her name and insists on being called “Charmaine.”
Seduced by the bright lights of Harlem, Lou Bessie has quickly become a fixture on Harlem’s party circuit. When not working as a maid cleaning apartments in Great Neck, New York, Lou Bessie is fond of frequenting Harlem’s watering holes, including the famous Savoy nightclub.
Lou Bessie has big plans for Husband—beginning with changing his name from Husband to the classier “Andre.” Aware that Husband will soon inherit some money, Lou Bessie hopes to use Husband’s inheritance to open a beauty and barber shop called Charmaine and Andre’s.
Both Elizabeth and Quilly realize that Lou Bessie is a scheming hussy who is more in love with Husband’s impending money than with Husband, but Husband is blinded by love.
With the recent passing of his mother, Husband is lonely. An attraction slowly blossoms between Husband and the never married 55-year-old Elizabeth, who both share a love for the simple country life.
Old resentments between the two sisters finally rise to the surface when Quilly boldly sets out an old photograph of her ex-husband Herman in the living room.
It comes to light that years ago, Herman was once Elizabeth’s old boyfriend—that is, until Quilly met Herman and stole his affections. Quilly married Herman, but Herman eventually left Quilly for a younger woman. The scorned Quilly has turned into a bitter woman.
Elizabeth admits she is still wounded by Quilly’s betrayal. “After mother died, you stole Herman away from me and you never once said you were sorry,” Elizabeth cries.
“I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you I’m sorry for the hurt,” Quilly confesses. Despite Quilly’s betrayal, Elizabeth dutifully took in Quilly after she was abandoned.
Husband wins a complimentary ticket for a free dinner at a Harlem restaurant and invites Elizabeth to join him. The two stay out laughing and talking until dawn—and Quilly is livid. She sees the transformation occurring in Elizabeth, who flits around the apartment singing happily.
Comic relief permeates the play whenever Quilly tries to use the party line telephone, with Quilly frequently doing verbal battle with a salty “motor mouth” neighbor who refuses to get off the line.
Husband eventually discovers that Lou Bessie is secretly living in Harlem with her old boyfriend Bucket. Despondent and hurt, he turns his affection towards Elizabeth. Despite the 30-year age difference, Elizabeth and Husband realize they have passionate feelings for each other and fall in love. Husband surprises Elizabeth with a ring and proposes, hoping to take Elizabeth back to South Carolina to begin a new life together.
Another humorous incident occurs when Husband strolls into the living room wearing a brand new zoot suit and conked hair ready to take Elizabeth out to dinner. The garish getup gets Quilly laughing so hard, she collapses on the floor.
“Don’t just stand there looking like Uncle Ben before he started cooking rice. What do you know about Hep Cats?” Quilly cries.
Quilly is livid about the budding May-December romance, and chides Elizabeth, telling her that it is a ridiculous union. “You too old to be having babies,” Quilly fusses at her. “You think God is going to touch your belly and out pops another Husband? You go around snapping your fingers like some fast teenage girl on the street.”
Elizabeth excitedly accepts Husband’s proposal—but everything does not go smoothly. Lou Bessie is not ready to let Husband go. She arrives at Elizabeth’s doorstep and mocks Elizabeth’s age, calling her an “Old Settler”—a woman who has never been married–and boasts that she can get Husband back any time she wants.
Elizabeth begins to pack for the trip. Feeling abandoned, Quilly is resentful and refuses to speak to her for weeks. As the time grows closer for Elizabeth’s departure, Quilly finally breaks down, crumpling to the floor and confesses that she is frightened of being left alone. She pleads for Elizabeth to postpone the marriage and stay with her.
Will Elizabeth marry Husband and return to the country? Will Husband completely escape Lou Bessie’s clutches? Will Quilly end up living alone in Harlem?
Interspersed with songs from Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday, The Old Settler is an engrossing play that sheds light on what it was like to live in a lively and bustling Harlem during World War II and the tensions that existed for African Americans. Written by John Henry Redwood, an actor and playwright who died in Philadelphia in 2003 and deftly directed by William Stanford Davis, The Old Settler is also a poignant story of love, loss, and family, a tale that resonates long after the curtain closes.
The Pico Playhouse
10508 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles
Runs until October 27th
Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 3 p.m.
General admission is $32.00.
For more information, call (323) 960-7712
or go online to www.plays411.com/old settler.