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The Old Settler
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40's Harlem

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Interview with the Playwright

John Henry Redwood
Playwright John Henry Redwood

The Origins of Elizabeth and Quilly
"I initially started writing because, being an actor, I thought there was a paucity of good roles for African American actors. And of course, I wrote roles for myself. But as time went on, the main characters started to manifest themselves into female characters, much as I fought against it at first. When I gave into it I found that there was even more of a paucity of roles for African American actresses. So I decided I wanted to tell the story of the black woman. We as African-Americans have survived on this continent due to the strength and perseverance of the black woman. And if we don't tell her story than we are remiss in telling our history."
"So The Old Settler is about the strength and courage of the black woman. You have this woman who has lived so long without a man. And whatever the reason she's taken to the young man, she still maintains a certain dignity about herself. Also, it's about the courage to go back to find her sister after so many years of being estranged. It's about a reconciliation of two sisters. What they're talking about is only a catalyst for that reconciliation."
"Any personal experience in the play comes from my mom having moved back from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to live with her sister after over 50 years, both having been widowed. I would go down to visit every two weeks. I'm an only child, and my aunt didn't have any children, so I was an only child for both of them. They would cook for me and dote on me, and I would sit and watch them, and they would just bicker about every doggone thing. Five minutes later they were loving one another. Knowing the love they had given me all my life, I would sit there and think, 'My God, if someone came into the house and saw these two they would think they hated one another.' But bickering is a form of love. It's what you do after that counts -- how you make up. It's very interesting to watch two people to see how they get over it."
Questions of Age
"It's also about getting old, in terms of having an opportunity to heal wrongs from the past. If it's wrong you can fix it, but you don't want to wake up one day and say, 'I wish I had,' and then it's too late. I try to think, 'I'm going to do this now no matter what, because I've always wanted to do it. Because I'm only coming this way one time.' "
"The fact that we have this younger man and older woman is a great, great thing because of the time period that this happens in. We're talking about 1943. Not only that, but she is going to leave this big metropolis where they can hide and go down to a small town in South Carolina, where that kind of stuff is big news and will be blown out of proportion. That is tough. That is not accepted."
Husband and Lou Bessie
"The relationship between Husband and his mother is borne out of this young man's respect for his mother but also for black women in general. How Husband sees the world is through the eyes of this woman who has taught him, who has nurtured him and who has helped him along his way. He says, 'My mama did this... My mama taught me that,' because that's his foundation. There is a lot of respect in how he deals with Elizabeth and Quilly. And with Lou Bessie."
"The city is a place where social mores are more negotiable, especially for someone of Lou Bessie's personality who wants to shed that country feeling. She wants to be urbane, slick, out there having a good time. She was stifled and she would always be stifled in Frogmore. She says, 'I'm not going back down there.' She actually changes her name, reinvents herself on the way to New York on the train. As she gets closer to New York and further from North Carolina she gets closer to Charmayne and further from Lou Bessie."
"Husband represents a certain [set of] values that was prevalent especially in black society at that time, in the sense of survival in this particular environment. When you said 'Yes, ma'am' or 'No, ma'am' you were taught that not because a black person wanted you to say it, but because when you were in town and you came upon a white person, it could be very fatal, especially for a male child, how you responded."
Harlem's Heyday
"Harlem itself, not just the Savoy but all that Harlem represents at that time -- sophistication, fun, joy and a growing black mecca -- forms the crucible in which Lou Bessie is transformed into Charmayne. The message had been carried about it from America over to Paris, by way of Richard Wright, by way of Josephine Baker, by way of a lot of artists who had gone over there. So it had become of almost mythical proportions. And to someone coming from a place like Frogmore, South Carolina, which might have 200 people, it's a revelation. Lou Bessie screams, 'I have never seen so many colored people in one place in my life.'"

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JH Redwood

John Henry Redwood talks about the language of the play

The Language of the Play
"People talk about idiomatic expression in terms of black lifestyle and how writers use it, how it's so poetic. I say, when you get a chance to sit down with an older person, really listen to what they have to say. And you will be surprised how much of that you can capture. But it's also the expressions I've grown up with. Any expression in that play that you hear I've heard time and time again, coming from my mother, my aunt, my grandmother, my great grandmother. I listen to the old slave narratives, the WPA's writings. I hear certain spirituals and it brings tears to my eyes. All of that I want to capture on paper for my plays."

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