John Henry Redwood, Playwright of Old Settler, Dead at 60

By Kenneth Jones
June 26, 2003

John Henry Redwood, an actor and playwright whose works, The Old Settler and No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, have been widely produced in recent years, died June 17 in Philadelphia, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Mr. Redwood was 60. He died of heart disease at his home on Fernon Street in South Philadelphia. Worried neighbors who had not seen him in several days called police and his body was discovered.

Philadelphia Theatre Company co-produced (with Primary Stages in New York) the world premiere of No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, which was set in 1949 in rural Halifax, North Carolina.

In it, Mattie Cheeks, an African-American mother and wife is desperately struggling to at once raise her daughters and protect her fragile marriage. With her husband away and a mysterious stranger prying in her familial secrets, Mattie is soon forced to overcome overwhelming odds in order to keep her family together. The included ideas about racism and anti-Semitism.

Bruce Weber, in The New York Times, said this of the play's New York premiere: "You will not often find a stage family where both the individual relationships and the overall dynamic are as vibrant and well defined as they are in this one."

The African-American Mr. Redwood, who earned a PhD in religion and acted on Broadway and in regional theatres, said in the past that he turned to playwriting to create roles for himself and for others in the black acting community.

The Inquirer reported that Mr. Redwood was expected to appear in James Still's drama of a butler's 20-year experience in the White House, Looking Over the President's Shoulder, at the People's Light and Theatre Company in Malvern, PA, in July. He's played the role regionally, to acclaim. The Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, recently announced Mr. Redwood for the DC premiere of the play in 2003-04 season.

The Old Settler is what you might call a regional hit. It has been produced around the country by resident troupes eager for new voices and small-cast shows. Geva Theatre, McCarter Theatre, Virginia Stage Company, Long Wharf Theatre and Pasadena Playhouse are among theatres that staged it. In New York, for Primary Stages, Leslie Uggams starred in the bittersweet comedy of two sisters in 1940s Harlem. The play will be produced this summer at the Westport Country Playhouse, July 16-Aug. 2.

A Variety critic said The Old Settler was "soundly constructed and peopled with vivid characters" and "a chapter in the black American experience skillfully laced with sweet sorrow, wry humor and poetic flavor."

The Brooklyn-born Mr. Redwood performed in Guys and Dolls and The Piano Lesson on Broadway, and appeared in many of August Wilson's plays around the country. In addition to his doctorate, the ex-Marine held masters degrees in religion and history.

His plays include Mark VIII:xxvi, winner of the 1986 AUDELCO Award for Best Play; A Sunbeam, recipient of the McDonald's Literary Achievement Award; Acted Within Proper Departmental Procedure; and several one-acts.

In his biography for Primary Stages' The Old Settler, he wrote, "John Henry, having once studied for the ministry, believes that being a good actor or dentist or golfer is only one's avocation. One's vocation is being the best human being one can be."

One of Mr. Redwood's favorite quotations was, "I shall pass this way only once, therefore, whatever good I can do, let me do it now, for I shall not pass this way again." In keeping with that philosophy, his was a volunteer for health causes such as Race for the Cure and for those in need.

Two years ago he told the Inquirer he wanted to start his own theatre, one that "is playwright-friendly."

He is survived by a daughter.