Harlem Nocturne

In The Old Settler, sisters bicker over unsettling issues of race and romance

This is a first-rate production in every respect. The direction by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe keeps the tempo on the deliberate side, forcing the audience to rewind to the rhythms of a gentler place and time. The casting is just about perfect. As one of Dallas' reigning musical theater stars, M. Denise Lee usually is seen onstage under layers of glam makeup and flouncy costumes. She's belted her heart out this past season in WaterTower's Rockin' Christmas Party and The Mystery of Edwin Drood and in Uptown Players' The Last Session. In this play she's almost unrecognizable as the plain-faced, life-weary "old settler" Elizabeth, but, wow, what a performance. She also gets to sing a little here and there. When Elizabeth breaks into a sad gospel song with Husband, it's so moving, many in the audience dissolve in tears. Sniffles can be heard all the way to the last row.

Tippi Hunter, last seen at WaterTower as the sassy maid in You Can't Take It With You, plays Quilly with a persistently sour expression, as if she's smelling day-old kraut. But beneath Quilly's selfishness lies tremendous insecurity and, though she's loath to admit it, a deep dependence on her stronger sister. Hunter gives Quilly huge helpings of bravado, but in the final scenes allows the character's vulnerability to shine through. It's a marvelous, carefully nuanced piece of acting.

As Husband, Kes Kehmnu, new to the Dallas stage, projects the vavoom sexiness of a young Denzel Washington. His seduction scene with Elizabeth could melt polar ice caps. They have palpable chemistry. He also has superb comic timing, particularly in his scenes with the hip-rolling Lou Bessie. She is the play's "villain," and the vivacious Lisa Baker plays her as a pouty floozy with a heart of tin. When "Charmaine" visits the sisters' apartment, she's like the skunk at the Sunday picnic--you can smell her before she arrives and her stink remains long after she leaves.

"Old Settlers" Elizabeth (M. Denise Lee), lower, and Quilly (Tippi Hunter) in WaterTower Theatre's current production
Scott Guenther
"Old Settlers" Elizabeth (M. Denise Lee), lower, and Quilly (Tippi Hunter) in WaterTower Theatre's current production

Details

continues at WaterTower Theatre through June 22. Call 972-450-6232.

Michael Sullivan's set beautifully reflects the era and the location of the play, which all takes place in the sisters' living room. Their furnishings are clean but believably frayed around the edges. The groupings of vintage family photos serve not just as a period touch but as a key element to the plot late in the play.

Michael A. Robinson's costume designs say working-class 1940s, complementing the characters and the actors and in several instances providing big laughs with vivid visual surprises. Nice work, too, by lighting designer Jeff Stover and sound designer Heather Gage, who provides background music in tune with what might have been playing on the wireless in World War II-era New York.

It's rare enough on Dallas stages to find a play with an all-African-American cast, much less one written, directed and acted with such artistic grace. The play has a lot of heart and soul, but it also serves as a reminder of some of the grimmer moments of 20th-century black history. Throughout The Old Settler the sisters share little stories that illustrate what life was like for black Americans in those years. They talk about a mother and her children being forced off a train in the South to make room for white passengers. Husband makes a reference to the segregated military. Quilly, staring out the window at the busy emergency entrance of the hospital across the street, clucks her tongue at the violence "colored people" inflict on one another. The playwright doesn't force-feed these issues, but it strengthens the play that they are there.

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