Harlem Nocturne

In the parlance of Harlem circa 1943, an "old settler" was an unsettling term for a woman of a certain age who had no children, no husband and no prospects. With so many men in uniform overseas in those years, there weren't a lot of single gents on the home front. Older, unattached women were written off as either permanently settled into spinsterhood or willing to settle for just about anything in trousers. So it is with sisters Elizabeth Borny and Quilly McGrath, the main characters in John Henry Redwood's high-spirited and deeply moving period play The Old Settler, now getting its area premiere in a fine production at Addison's WaterTower Theatre.

In their 40s, the two sisters share a nicely furnished, roomy apartment on a Harlem boulevard. Elizabeth (played by M. Denise Lee) has never married. Quilly (Tippi Hunter) is separated from an unfaithful spouse. They both work as domestics for white families, and it's clear they are roommates more by circumstance than design. Bad feelings simmer between them, something to do with Quilly's absent husband, whose photograph Elizabeth won't even allow in her presence. They never talk about him.

As the play opens, the women have just returned from a funeral. Quilly, decked out in an expansive white dress, white fur fez and satin sash that identifies her as a member of the "Ladies of the Golden Sceptre" lodge, can't stop chattering about the ugly outfit and bad lipstick on the corpse. Elizabeth barely tolerates her sister's vicious gossip. She sits at the kitchen table, hunched glumly over a plate of chicken and biscuits she's wagged home under waxed paper from the funeral lunch.

With a buzz at the door, the sisters' lives are changed forever by a newcomer to New York City. Handsome young Husband Witherspoon (Kes Kehmnu), hat in hand, has come to rent a room from the sisters. He seems a safe bet as a boarder, arriving from South Carolina with glowing recommendations from the sisters' church friends. He's refreshingly naïve and trusting. When his luggage is pilfered by the stranger who offered to "watch" it for him on the front stoop, Husband learns the first of many lessons he'll encounter in the ways of the wicked city.

Husband plans to be only a temporary lodger in Harlem. Having nursed his beloved, oft-quoted mother through her final days, his mission is to locate his last girlfriend, Lou Bessie Preston (Lisa S. Baker), and take her as his wife back to the family farm down south. Elizabeth seems unimpressed by Husband at first, but that will change. Quilly's just happy to have a man around to protect her from the rapists she imagines lurk in every corner. Husband also politely fetches the takeout helpings of fried chicken ("the last part over the fence") and "swamp seeds" (rice) Quilly craves.

Thanks to Redwood's fine writing, the course of this lovely two-act play turns out to be not so predictable as one might expect. Redwood paces the action in a series of languid, 10-minute scenes, and he has a particularly good ear for authentic-sounding dialogue. Quilly and Elizabeth jabber at each other with colorful, old-timey slang terms that help define their time and place, saying "pimp steaks" for hot dogs and "kitchen mechanics" for cooks. When Quilly wants to insult Husband's new clothes, she tells him he looks like "Uncle Ben before he started cookin' rice" and that his pointy new shoes "could kill a cockroach in the corner." When she gives someone the bum's rush, she says, "Don't let the doorknob hitcha where the good Lawd splitcha." Somebody was taking notes when the old folks told stories at family reunions.

Husband tracks down Lou Bessie, all right. She has rechristened herself "Charmaine," the better to blend in with the swanks she lindy-hops with at the Savoy Ballroom. When Lou Bessie sashays into the sisters' apartment wearing hair, hat and gloves in a matching shade of firehouse red, she sets off their alarm bells. Quilly sizes her up as a cheap mess o' goods, and she's not far wrong. Elizabeth wants to rescue Husband before the little tart nabs him and burns through his small inheritance.

Act 1 of The Old Settler mostly plays off the comic bickering between the sisters and the silly fish-out-of-water problems Husband gets into trying to navigate the Manhattan subway system in his search for the errant Lou Bessie. Things start to get more interesting, however, when Elizabeth and Husband sit down to reminisce about life back home in the Carolinas. There's romantic heat between them that Elizabeth is reluctant to explore. And then she does.

In Act 2, it looks like Husband and Elizabeth might have a life together, which terrifies Quilly, who doesn't want to be left alone at the mercy of those rapists. But Lou Bessie shows up one last time to tempt Husband. In a scene reminiscent of The Heiress, Elizabeth waits up all night in a chair by the window for Husband's return. Will he come back to her and live up to his name?

If it sounds like a soap opera, well, it's high-class suds, like Imitation of Life without Lana Turner hogging the plot. There's a hint of Tennessee Williams here, too, with the dynamic relationship between the sisters interrupted by the intrusion of a good-looking Southern gentleman caller. Not in a long time has a contemporary play felt so believably old-fashioned. What a relief that not a single character turns to address the audience. It all just unfolds the way a good drama should, with some humor, some suspense and some heartbreaking moments when shattered dreams are revealed.

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.

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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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner