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THE OLD SETTLER at Paul Robeson Theatre is a gem with only six more shows left

THE BASICS:  THE OLD SETTLER, a play by John Henry Redwood directed by Mary Craig, starring Debbi Davis, Johnny Rowe, Courtney Turner, and Mary Craig in the title role runs through May 28, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 4 at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue near Utica. (884-2013). Run time a little over two hours with one intermission. Soda pop and water available. Note, in the past, final Sunday performances at the PRT sell out early.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: We are in Harlem, in the forties, when Elizabeth, a fifty-five-year-old spinster (an “Old Settler”) who came up from the South years ago has taken in a recent arrival, a young man named Husband, to help her with the rent. Husband has come North looking to find his true love, Lou Bessie, but she’s no longer the same sweet small town country girl he fell in love with. Meanwhile, Elizabeth already has a roomer, her younger sister Quilly, who lives in the apartment rent-free. When Elizabeth and Husband start to have feelings for each other, the tension between sisters escalates, but in the end, full confession starts some healing.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It would be hard to overstate the high quality of this gem in the little theater on the East Side. I got one of the last seats for the show which followed the African American Cultural Center’s annual Mother’s Day lunch. The place was packed with many around the same age as “Elizabeth” and throughout the performance you could hear the murmurs of “Uh huh” or “Oh, yeah” coming from a very appreciative audience.

The play itself, a four-hander, calls for strong performances by three women and one man, and we certainly got those strong performances. It was written by John Henry Redwood an actor who, according to various obituaries, was frustrated with the lack of satisfying parts for black actors. Following a Manhattan premiere in 1998, it was listed in American Theater magazine as one of the 10 most-produced plays in the United States for the subsequent two seasons. When you attend (and it’s up only through May 28) you will see why.

Following a Manhattan premiere in 1998, it was listed in American Theater magazine as one of the 10 most-produced plays in the United States for the subsequent two seasons.

There are no false notes, no scenes that drag on a little too long, no confusion as to who or what or why things are and it’s rough, and funny, and sad throughout the evening. There is a satisfying overall dramatic arc but, best of all, there are many smaller arcs that build in intensity. Despite all the action being on one set, we get the feeling of a complete world through the various entrances and exits of characters and their stories of where they went and what they did. Some playwrights slowly develop their craft over a series of plays. Mr. Redwood struck gold with his first.

Some playwrights slowly develop their craft over a series of plays. Mr. Redwood struck gold with his first.

Mary Craig directed her crew of PRT veterans with love and care. The timings, the ensemble work, the development of four completely different characters all flowed naturally. Just one example is a scene in which the character Husband is explaining his motivations to Elizabeth as he’s sort of bowing and rocking from side to side while he crushes his hat in his hands. This elicited an “Oh, he’s real country” from the woman sitting on my right.

A strong play with well-defined characters, there is an element of African American history that drives the action. All four of the characters were “country” at one point but have come North for different reasons. This is not a history play with “a message.” It’s great entertainment. But it does reflect the stories of almost six million black citizens who from 1915 to 1970 fled the South for northern and western cities in search of a better life. Was it a better life? If we could ask the four characters that question directly, I’m sure that we’d get four very different answers.

By the way, if you want to know more about this aspect of American history, read the 2010 best seller Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning Isabel Wilkerson.

The set was designed by out of town freelancer Harlan Penn, a PRT favorite, and it was spot on. One fine detail was a cloth, hung as a curtain, in place of cupboard doors below the kitchen sink. Nice touch.

The acting is all first rate, with each character consistently portrayed as conversations flowed smoothly. In real life, we interrupt and talk over each other constantly and speak in fragments, but on stage that’s rarely done except on purpose. So how do you make a play appear to reflect reality? A good script and a good director sure, but in the end, it’s the actors who have to have exquisite timing. Excellent performances all around.

Johnny Rowe as the country “Husband” come north, Courtney Turner as the wild and flirtatious “Lou Bessie,” Debbi Davis as the sourpuss “Quilly,” and Mary Craig as the settled but willing to try something new “Elizabeth” made a fine ensemble.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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