Old Settler – a woman who is pushing 40, who’s never been married and has no prospects. This is the definition given in John Henry Redwood’s “The Old Settler” in which Elizabeth, an old, old settler (think the above definition, but add 15 years) and her sister Quilly rent a room to a young man, Husband, who is new to Harlem. Despite the fact that Husband has come to Harlem to find his girl Lou Bessie, a romance inexplicably blooms between the young man and Elizabeth, much to the consternation of Quilly and Lou Bessie. Elizabeth is forced to choose between her love of Husband, and the prejudices of those around her that a young man could ever truly love a woman of Elizabeth’s age.
At first the script feels clever and endearing. A back-story that clearly colors the sister’s relationship is hinted at, but the audience is left to fill in the blanks. A love interest is expected, and a very charming interlude is provided. The act ends with a great build up of suspense and picks up in the second act when the aforementioned back-story explodes between the sisters with a rush of pent-up emotions and bad blood. However, it turns out that those hints in the first act are actually Redwood’s entire hand because the bad blood turns out to be exactly what is expected. The sweet predictability of the first act becomes resigned disappointment as the storyline continues down the implied path without a single twist or turn for interest. It’s not a bad road to travel down; it is well performed and enjoyable. Just know that you’re on the kiddie-coaster, not Space Mountain.
The relationship between the two sisters is marvelous. Ruby Hinds as Elizabeth and Jolie Oliver as Quilly have one of those relationships that you only see between family members, because if they didn’t share blood they would have killed each other or parted company long ago. Elizabeth is the resigned caretaker of her younger sister who whines or finagles her way out of doing her share of the chores, all the while fussing about anything and everything that comes her way. Oliver accentuates every gripe with the exclamation, “Shoot!” and with her varied deliveries it never ceases to garner a laugh. Both of the sisters are well developed and Hinds and Oliver both deliver nuanced performances that speak depths beyond the words that they utter.
John R. Davidson, as Husband, has a fine performance. Unfortunately, the script leaves his character pretty two-dimensional. He’s a naïve mama’s boy from the backwoods of South Carolina. Lou Bessie, played by Crystal Garrett, has a little bit more dimension to her, but Garrett has too many modern day mannerisms to pass for a 1940’s woman. When she demonstrates her dance moves while talking about going down to the Savoy to do the Lindy Hop, it becomes questionable whether she has ever actually seen anybody dance the Lindy Hop, much less dance it herself.
Despite the predictability of the script, there are some very funny and very touching moments. An underlying theme of the prejudices against African Americans in the early 40’s is eye opening simply in its prevalence within their day-to-day lives. They speak of it, not in outrage, but frustration. A frustration that no matter what they do or where they go, this plague of racism clings to them to try to keep them down. But there is a resiliency that exists beside this scourge that creates a sense of hope. Hope that one day things will be better.
*Coverage provided for the Culver City News