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Refusing to Settle 

Anthony Bean Community Theater, 1333 S. Carrollton Ave., 862-7529 There was a world of difference between Frogmore, S.C., and Harlem -- particularly back when "the good war" was raging in Europe. John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler, currently on the boards at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, deals in part with that difference. An "old settler," by the way, doesn't mean a geriatric pioneer. An "old settler" is just slang for a spinster. The "old settler" in this play is Elizabeth Borny (Patricia McGuire-Hill), who lives in her Harlem apartment in the 1940s with her younger sister, Quilly (Carol Sutton).

Their sometimes peaceful, sometimes "fussing and feuding" existence gets shaken by the arrival of a geechy. That's another outdated, and derogatory, bit of black slang. A geechy is a "hick." The hick in question, Husband Witherspoon (Kenneth Brown Jr.), is renting a room from Elizabeth. He came up from Frogmore in search of his girlfriend, Lou Bessie (Amber Nicole Wilkinson). Husband (his actual name, not marital status) is a handsome, decent young guy, all at sea with the ways of the big city. He wants to marry Lou Bessie and take her home with him.

Quilly doesn't like the idea of a young man sharing the apartment; it's not proper. People at church will talk. But Elizabeth makes the decisions, and she says Husband stays.

Soon enough, the plot thickens. But the play cooks along with considerable humor, even as dark clouds start to gather. Quilly, for example, worries so obsessively about rapists that they become a running gag. And she exaggerates the "geechiness" of Husband with the quip, "If he took off his shoes, he'd have chicken doo-doo between his toes!"

Lou Bessie, as it turns out, has crossed the country/city divide in a big way. She's become a flashy floozy and changed her name to Charmaine. We eventually learn that she was a questionable character, even back in Frogmore.

But the complications of young love pale before a more poignant and troubling romance. The aging spinster Elizabeth and the young, vibrant Husband fall for each other. Their dalliance throws the household into disarray and dislodges a long-simmering hurt between the sisters -- a hurt that has to do with an earlier love of Elizabeth's.

The Old Settler is partly a saga about the great African-American migration from country to city, from South to North. But that saga is set in the context of a more personal drama about aging and resignation, about families and about betrayal and forgiving.

Director Anthony Bean has put together an excellent cast: a pair of accomplished veterans matched with a pair of appealing newcomers. For the sisters, Bean turned to two extraordinary actresses from the late Dashiki Theater, although they have graced many stages since the glory days of that legendary troupe. McGuire-Hill brings her trademark honesty and effervescence to Elizabeth. She shows us not only Elizabeth's pain, but her perseverance. Sutton's Quilly puts a brave face on that most difficult of situations: being beholden to someone you love and have wronged. Once again, an essential honesty grounds the character.

Wilkinson gives Lou Bessie an extra dollop of attitude, while Brown -- in his very first role -- brings Husband to life with charm and conviction.

A tip of the hat to Scott Edwards for the apt set and Leo Jones for the fine '40s fashions. In 2002, Bean directed another John Henry Redwood play, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, and won three Big Easy Entertainment Awards. With this unusual domestic drama, he just might have another contender.

Meanwhile, over at Delgado Community College, we recently got a dose of laughter -- not to mention celebrity. The 78-year-old Larry Gelbart (whose credits include the Emmy-winning M*A*S*H on TV and the Tony-winning A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway) recently wrote Floodgate, a comedy about a fictional flood in Washington, D.C. Actually, the comedy is about government, more precisely the present administration.

Kris LaMorte directed an all-star cast, including Jay Thomas, Stocker Fontelieu, Carl Walker, Sean Patterson, M.I. Scoggin, Ron Gural, Karen-kaia Livers, Mark McLaughlin, Danny Bowen and Jerry Lee Leighton -- plus Vernel Bagneris and newscaster Dennis Woltering. Wow!

The setting was a televised governmental investigation, temporarily relocated in a stable. The culmination -- or nadir, depending on your point of view -- was an appearance by the Commander-in-Chief himself. Acronyms flew fast and furious (COMA, for instance, stood in for FEMA) and Mrs. Malaprop would have been right at home in this cabinet ("intimidated" is used for "intimated" -- that sort of thing.)

Floodgate played to large crowds, but only for a single weekend. One can't help but wonder where this delightful, cock-eyed confection will turn up next.

click to enlarge May-December romance: Newcomer Kenneth Brown Jr. - holds his own in his debut as Husband Witherspoon - romancing Elizabeth Borny (veteran Patricia McGuire-Hill) - in Anthony Bean's current production of John Henry - Redwood's The Old Settler.
  • May-December romance: Newcomer Kenneth Brown Jr. holds his own in his debut as Husband Witherspoon romancing Elizabeth Borny (veteran Patricia McGuire-Hill) in Anthony Bean's current production of John Henry Redwood's The Old Settler.
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