When Rita Gregory learned that New Horizon Theater was ending its season with John Henry Redwood’s “The Old Settler,” she knew she had to be a part of it.
“John Henry was a good friend of mine and we were going to do the play in New York but I had cancer so when I was given this opportunity I really wanted to do it,” explained Gregory who portrayed Elizabeth Borny. “There are so many young people out here pursuing theater, but we have to have more work for older women in theater.”
Set in World War II Harlem, ‘The Old Settler” tells the story of 55 year old spinster (or as they were called in those days, an old settler) rents a room in her apartment to handsome South Carolina transplant, Husband Witherspoon, who comes to the Big Apple in search of his girlfriend, Lou Bessie Preston, who is blinded by the worldly sophistication of New York City and is eager to shed her southern shackles. There is a kink in Husband’s plan as he finds himself falling for Elizabeth.
“I know what it feels like to have your heart in two places,” said Jonathan Berry who portrayed Husband in the production. Berry played the title role in New Horizon Theater’s previous play, “The Ballad of Emmett Till. “This character wasn’t as heavy as playing Emmett Till but I enjoyed it. I know the character because my father’s from the South. I model all of my Southern characters on my dad and other Southern family.”
In addition to Husband, Elizabeth’s 53 -year-old sister, Quilly McGrath (who was portrayed to perfection by Brenda Marks), also resides in the apartment. Quilly doesn’t like Husband living with them and gets really disjointed when Husband and Elizabeth start a romantic relationship. The new relationship strains the ominous tension between the sisters and exposes the fact that Elizabeth’s boyfriend dumped her for Quilly and the two got married. Quilly is living with Elizabeth because her husband left her for a neighbor.
“The Old Settler” was first staged in 1996 and was selected by the Russian Theatre Union to be performed in Sheleykovo, Russia and in Moscow with both an American and Russian cast. Houston-born actresses and real-life sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen produced, directed and appeared in the April 2001 television premiere of the play on PBS Hollywood Presents.
New York-born John Henry Redwood, III was an actor and playwright whose work reflected different racial and ethnic experiences in America. He graduated from St. John’s University and earned a Master’s degree from Fordham University. “The Old Settler” gained Redwood national recognition when it earned an American Theater Critics Association Award and was listed in American Theater magazine as one the 10-most -produced plays in the United States for two subsequent seasons. Redwood died in 2003 at the age of 60 at his home in Philadelphia.
The story’s celebration of older African American women and its addressing the themes of age, strength, forgiveness, love between a younger man and an older woman, a young woman reinventing herself, and sisters reconciling their estranged past is what drew New Horizon Theater to the work.
“We tried to get a production that would go over well with the audience and this one has,” explained New Horizon Theater chairperson, Joyce Meggerson-Moore.
“Everyone meshed well together and everyone enjoyed the comedy of the show.”
Audience members left the theater laughing and with smiles on their faces.
“The play was really good and funny. It was very enjoyable,” said audience member Cassie Lemon-Johnson.
Originally New Horizon Theater was supposed to end its season with “From My Hometown” but the production to be put on hold due to personal issues between the actors. As a result a replacement production was needed.
“We needed seasoned actors that could come in with little rehearsal time and do the show,” Meggerson-Moore said. “We chose the actors based on that and Melessie Clark (a recent Point Park University graduate who made her New Horizon Theater debut as Lou Bessie) was a new find for us.”
“The Old Settler was funded in part by The Heinz Endowments, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, The Pittsburgh Foundation and Chris Moore Communications, Inc.
In lieu of New Horizon Theater’s summer fundraiser, Summer Jamz, Chris Moore Communications, Inc. will be presenting The Manhattans featuring Gerald Alston on Saturday, August 27 at 7:30 p.m. at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
(Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased by visiting http://www.newhorizontheater.org.)
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