For those who collect archaic terms, an "old settler" is a woman nearing forty, rushing headlong into spinsterhood. For those who collect archaic plays, The Old Settler is a play where, for the first time since the hula hoop was declared passe, an enraged virtuous woman tells a painted, man-stealing trollop to "get your hussy self out of my house."
We're not dealing with a creaky resurrection of Storm and Sunshine, nor with Charles Ludlam's Eunuchs of the Forbidden City. Instead, here is an honest-to-goodness new play by one John Henry Redwood, an endearing new dinosaur, a hearts-and-flowers comic melodrama--the kind of play long ago made extinct by network sitcoms and soap operas.
This is a charming Harlem variation of the mentally light, emotionally drenched, sentiment-heavy comedies that used to open weekly on Broadway, then would proceed to thrive in tents, barns, and small-town opera houses across the nation.
Like the aforementioned The Price, it centers on sibling rivalry. It concerns two sisters living in Harlem in 1943: One gets the man, and the other gets the wisecracks. The play is jerry-built, but it is propped up in period charm, a reminder of the simpler times, when blacks straightened their hair to match a white ideal as exemplified by Hollywood "dream girls" like Alice Faye. Only the excuse of period charm would allow a play to show a woman's main pursuits to be layering a cake for the church bake sale, keeping her reputation intact, doing battle with a girdle, and making sure the seams on her stockings were straight.
In this kind of play, the actors all speak in exclamation points. When Sister Quilly, played with bulldog charm by Gammy L. Singer, delivers a Harlem zinger, she squints like Audrey Meadows as Alice Cramden, wiggling her expressive fanny and hitting a deadpan home run to the balcony. ("Well, if we're late to the funeral, she ain't gonna get no deader.")
In this 1940s New York, there are two fates for a country girl who migrates to the big city: losing her cornpone ways, dying her hair yellow, and strutting around like a Carmen Jones floozy, as Lou Bessie Preston (Chantelle Cason) does; or remaining a devout churchwoman who breaks into Mahalia Jackson gospel songs periodically to show those big-city sinners a thing or two about down-home piety, as Elizabeth Borny (Ernestine Jackson) does.
Director David McClendon propels his highly capable cast with the bright mechanical efficiency of a metronome. The true star here, though, is the evocation of the year 1943 in a play that's not afraid to spoon-feed a thick layer of sentiment like homemade gooseberry jam on cornbread.
The audience suppressed modern cynicism for church-picnic conviviality, hooting and cheering at every twist and turn of the plot, and generally having a rollicking good time in this big-budget variation on the typical Karamu project. All of which goes to demonstrate that an old-fashioned spoonful of diversity, however plastic, is a good tonic for the box office.
The Old Settler, through May 9 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000.