Standing Tall: Playwright John Henry Redwood Looks at Racism

Standing Tall: Playwright John Henry Redwood Looks at Racism John Henry Redwood, the award-winning playwright of The Old Settler, one of the most produced plays of the 1999 and 2000 seasons, is a bundle of contradictions.

John Henry Redwood, the award-winning playwright of The Old Settler, one of the most produced plays of the 1999 and 2000 seasons, is a bundle of contradictions.

A former Marine — a "professional killer," as he puts it — with master degrees in religion and history, he is an accomplished writer, director and actor. With a bit of arrogance and a great deal of passion for his work, Redwood talks about his latest play, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, which has its world premiere at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Jan. 26-Feb. 25, at the Plays & Players Theatre. Directed by Israel Hicks, his new drama is a co-production with New York's Primary Stages (which premiered Old Settler in 1998) and has received the support of the NAACP, which will sponsor an NAACP Night at the Theatre during the local run of the production.

After discovering joy in acting, Redwood tried his hand at playwriting because he saw a lack of good material for African-American actors. Although there is a great diversity among African-American experiences, Redwood said that very few are represented by plays that "white theatre choose to produce. And they never get to the meat of the story. There are a lot stories, and people are cursing, selling dope to prostitutes—and I know these people. But I know other people also. These are the people I choose to write about.

"With the exception of August Wilson and Lorraine Hansbury, all the plays [by African Americans] were about anger, cursing and drugs— and what I'm saying is that there were other people who had aspirations about them. For instance, you never see a serious African-American love story. People are producing plays about who they think we are. In so many cases they're right, but that's not all we are."

Redwood's father was a strict disciplinarian and workaholic, who left his son to be raised primarily by the boy's mother, grandmother and aunt. "How I see the world is through the eyes of these women. I feel an affinity to write in that vein," he admits. So it's not surprising that Redwood writes exceptionally vivid roles for women. And his latest work revolves around Mattie Cheeks, an African-American mother and wife in 1949 rural Halifax, North Carolina, who struggles to raise her two daughters and protect her fragile marriage after she is sexually assaulted by her white employer.

Although the playwright won't disclose his age — "I don't use that... after a certain period of time in life, after 50, all of us are the same" — his play is based on "historical truth" that needed no research. His characters are based on stories he heard at the family kitchen table while growing up. And he recalls seeing signs bearing such racist slogans as "No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs" while attending the University of Kansas.

Redwood is clearly excited about his work. With a booming baritone voice, used to great effect on Broadway in August Wilson's drama The Piano Lesson and the hit musical Guys and Dolls, he speaks faster and faster as he discusses the historical context of his period drama.

"Women in the South were frequently threatened and victimized with little or no recourse," Redwood explains. "This play resonates with historical truth.

"This is a story that is not an unusual story. It happens all the time, and especially during the Jim Crow period— this was something that happened all the time in the South and sometimes in the North too. Although I grew up in Brooklyn, I had family in Halifax, North Carolina. I spent a lot of summers there, and I heard the stories. Women could be raped there with impunity."

But the drama is not only about white-black racism, but about all forms of intolerance.

A major character in the play is Yaveni, a Jewish scholar who is visiting the Cheeks family as part of his own "comparative study in racial suffering between Negroes and Jews."

The character's name is based on a close childhood friend of Redwood, who grew up in Brownville section of Brooklyn, New York, a predominately Jewish neighborhood.

"I loved the Jewish holidays because we had [school days] off as well as the Christian holidays. In fact, we [African-Americans] knew the Jewish holidays better than they did!" Redwood admits, laughing. But his voice quickly becomes somber again. "I like to write about how we [African-Americans] relate to others in the world, like Native Americans or Jews. There is a shared sense of discrimination toward Jews and towards blacks."

He recalls the story of a Jewish man who was denied work at an exclusive country club, only later to go on to become a prominent surgeon. As an adult, the man purchased the club and razed it, but not before removing the "No Negroes, No Jews" sign and hanging it in his home.

"When you write something like this, people come out of the woodwork," Redwood says. "Somebody told me Whoopi Goldberg has a sign like this in her home, too, although I don't know if it's true.

"But the point is we need these signs. We need to tell these stories, so it never happens again. Where at a place and time now, with the advent of the militia groups, hate groups, and the internet—there are states where people are afraid to enter. Hate is all around."

He cites institutions like the Simon Weisenthal Institute and the national Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as successful models in reminding us of such tragic consequences of hatred.

"People on the street, people who aren't Jewish, they don't understand their history or they don't know it. That's why they run around crazy like they do. All you have to do is see lampshades made of Jewish skin, and that's a horror—no matter your skin. I think people really need to know our history. You'd be surprised with how many people on the street don't know their history. It's critical they learn."

Redwood cites his parents as his greatest role models, and continues to find inspiration today from public school teachers. "I really think they have to hang in there. Respect for education is not there. I find school teachers to be wonderful role models. They are overworked and underpaid, and I admire them a great deal."

Although he's often asked to be a guest lecturer, he doesn't quite consider himself a role model. "But would I like to be?" he pauses, reflecting. "Yeah!"

— M. Scott Mallinger