The Old Settler Spins a Web of Charm and Laughter at Billie Holiday Theatre

By Nilanjan Bhattacharya

When the lights go on at the stage, a living room and the adjoining kitchen come into view.  For the next hour, the audience is pulled into the gently captivating milieu of John Henry Lockwood’s play The Old Settler, which opened the Billie Holiday Theatre’s Fall season on October 20th and ran until November 19th. Fall 2017 marks the first full season at Billie Holiday since the theater’s extensive renovation earlier this year.

Set in World War II Harlem, the play’s main protagonist is a middle-aged spinster (or as they were called in those days – an Old Settler) named Elizabeth Borny.  Elizabeth takes in a young male roomer, Husband Witherspoon, to help her with the rent. Husband has come to Harlem from South Carolina to search for his girlfriend, Lou Bessie Preston.  Also living with Elizabeth is her sister, Quilly McGrath. An ominous cloud of tension hangs over Elizabeth and Quilly's relationship. This tension is further exacerbated when Elizabeth and Husband take to liking each other. Quilly, who doesn't like Husband living with them in the first place, doesn't approve of their "carrying on," especially given their May-December age difference.

The drama is generously spiced with echoes of old Harlem, filled with ready references to Smalls’ Paradise, the Apollo Theater and the Savoy Ballroom, plus an enveloping dash of period jazz music.

Maechi Aharanwa as Lou Bessie delivers an effective blast of sass and arrogance, and Denise Burse garners many lusty laughs as the protective and judgmental sister Quilly.

Harboring the old wounds and disillusionment of a long-ago courtship, Elizabeth is acted with studied restraint and despair by Pauletta Pearson Washington. Like the betrayed spinster of “The Heiress,” the actress invests her old maid with dignity and a quiet strength.  As the rustic Husband, Warner Miller brings the right notes of callowness and gullibility to the role.

The production is directed by Michele Shay, an award-winning actress, director and producer, perhaps best known for her Tony Award-nominated performance as Louise in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. She began her New York career at the Billie Holiday Theatre as Alicia in Richard Wesley’s play Goin’ Thru Changes directed by Lloyd Richards.