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'Old Settler' is Harlem tale full of heart and yearning

CHUCK GRAHAM
Tucson Citizen
Sept. 23, 2002

The first half is funny. The second half will break your heart. That's the path of "The Old Settler" by John Henry Redwood, opening the season for Invisible Theatre.
Set in Harlem in 1943, with an all-African-American cast, the story is multi-cultural enough to resonate with a European-American audience. Guest director Elizabeth Van Dyke from New York is more interested in conveying the heart of the play instead of its race politics.
White people as a group do get knocked about in the conversations of the play's four characters. But there is no doubting the sincerity of the actors. They are onstage to present a provocative story through powerful performances. For Invisible Theatre, it is another convincing production proving this homegrown company is ready for the big time.
The hulking Walter Belcher is particularly good as the gentle giant in his 20s who misses his mommy. Shuffling about the stage and speaking softly, he becomes the country boy oddly named Husband Witherspoon from the coastal swamps of South Carolina.
Via the network of black churches on the eastern seaboard he has been directed to rent a room in the apartment of Elizabeth Borny, a church-going spinster in her 40s. Also sharing the rent is her even more religious sister Quilly.
To-Re-Ne Wolf Keiser gives a finely nuanced interpretation of Elizabeth, a woman who has always done the right thing only to find this path has taken her nowhere. She is the one who dares to believe, against all odds, the love of a good man will come her way.
Barbea Williams as Quilly is the realist. Her life has included love but hasn't turned out any better than Elizabeth's. Now Quilly is forced to live with her sister, mostly for no other reason than that there's a war on and they are sisters. Consequently, out of unhappiness they are always sniping at each other, knowing that no matter how harshly they argue, neither one can leave because they have nowhere to go.
Most of their conversations, filled with politely salty colloquialisms, are funny. Keiser and Williams have great timing together. But the delicate sibling balance they create is upset by the arrival of Husband coming to Harlem to find his South Carolina girlfriend Lou Bessie and take her back home.
Tracing Loving plays Lou Bessie with a youthful intensity that rings true. She has come north for a big gulp of life in Harlem's fast lane and is determined to drink deeply. In her eyes, Husband is little more than a trained bear and she is the trainer.
As Husband realizes Lou Bessie is only stringing him along, he comes to fixate on Elizabeth as a combination mother and lover. Elizabeth, filled with frustration with her sister, wants to believe she can find happiness with the much-younger Husband.
To reach a resolution, all four people must decide what is most important in their lives. For three of them, true love has always taken a back seat to a fondness for the dependable power of manipulating the feelings of others.
Copyright © 2002 Tucson Citizen