After the successful world premiere of John Henry Redwood's drama of African-American life at NJ's McCarter Theatre,The Old Settler continues its world premiere at Connecticut's prestigious Long Wharf Theatre, running Mar. 4-Apr. 6.
The Long Wharf production, produced in association with the McCarter, retains the cast and director Walter Dallas, who heads Philadelphia's black-themed Freedom Theatre. The Old Settler is set in 1940s Harlem, and takes an affectionate look at two middle-aged sisters whose relationship is put to the test when they take in a young boarder searching for his lost love. Playing the sisters of Settler are Brenda Pressley and Myra Lucretia Taylor, while Tico Wells enacts the boarder and Stefanie Clay his beloved.
McCarter artistic director Emily Mann (the adapter of Having Our Say) says the play fits into the theatre's continuing efforts to "smash stereotypes:" "We want to break away from cliche' writing to show how varied and multi-faceted African-American life is."
Playwright Redwood furthered this theme by saying, "The things that McCarter does with African-Americans, I feel good about. They do things that encompass the whole family -- something positive. They show that an African American can say a complete sentence without profanity, and everything doesn't revolve around fighting, sex and cursing."
Redwood told Playbill On-Line that he's pleased with the McCarter's work on The Old Settler, even though, "I don't think a playwright is ever totally satisfied. You always want to change the writing a little, like at the end of the act one, when Husband stars moving close to Bess, and she says, `Go on, now..go on now..' And then she stops and says, `come on now.' Which is different from the way it was, where she just said `Go on now' and submitted." Though local reviews of the play have been exceptionally good, Redwood says there's been no talk of bringing the work to New York at this point. "I'm really hoping to ride the tide of The Old Settler because my favorite play that I wrote is A Sunbeam. It's a more complicated work, more of a comment on society than Settler. It was premiered at Pittsburgh Public Theatre with Mary Alice in it, but it was done, reactions were tremendous. But major theatres won't touch it."
Invariably, this leads to ask about the ongoing argument between Robert Brustein and August Wilson about African-Americans' place in the commercial American theatre. "I don't quite agree with Wilson that black playwrights should be writing specifically for black theatre. But I do have more difficulties getting my work done. If you look at the October issue of American Theatre magazine, which has the listings of regional theatres around the country, see how many plays, in a 3-play or 6-play season, are African-American. And it's not just a black/white thing. How many Latino plays? How many Asian plays? You can't imagine how many good Latino playwrights are out there and their work isn't getting produced. Most black writers write in a vacuum, with nothing to go on but hope."
Redwood did have kind words for the McCarter: "They are opening their doors, and each season they make a real effort, whether Greensboro or Having Our Say or The Old Settler.
MARK VIII:xxxvi, Redwood's first play, won a 1986 Audelco Award for Best Play. Other works include A Sunbeam, Acted Within Proper Departmental Procedure and What If You're The One?.
Director Dallas staged the world premiere of August Wilson's Seven Guitars at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, as well as the Mark Taper Forum mounting of Mann's Having Our Say.
Pressley was in the original Broadway cast of
Designing Old Settler are Loren Sherman (set), Francis Aronson (lighting), and David Murin (costumes).
For tickets and information on the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, please refer to the regional listing on Playbill On-Line.
--By David Lefkowitz