Compelling ‘The Old Settler’ gets personal at Bowie Community Theatre

The play's exploration of love, family, and the resilience of the human spirit leaves a lasting impression.

Director Lorraine Brooks seems to be making an artistic second home in the DC area.

Bowie Community Theatre’s The Old Settler is her second production at the director’s helm. Coming on the heels of Laurel Mill Playhouse’s Consecrated Ground performed earlier this year, Brooks delivers very personal elements into the show’s story, setting, and characters’ relationships.

Jennifer Thomas (as Elizabeth Borny) and Dionne Belk (as Quilly McGrath) in ’The Old Settler.’ Photo by Reed Sigmon.

Written by John Henry Redwood and set against the backdrop of the Great Migration, Settler revolves around the lives of two sisters, Elizabeth and Quilly (Jennifer Thomas and Dionne Belk), who find their routine disrupted when a young man named Husband Witherspoon enters their lives. Brooks is a Harlem native and she successfully transports viewers to the Harlem of the 1940s, immersing them in a world rich with both historical context and deeply human emotions.

The apartment tenement where the play takes place is decorated with vintage furniture and detailed era-specific elements that evoke a tenuous but shared space for the sisters. Set designer Dan Lavanga fills the stage with couches and chairs, some of which are never used during the production (a decision that reminded me of specific rules for which chairs I was allowed to use during grandparent visits). Director Brooks includes over a dozen photographs of her own family from that era, and that personal touch in the design also plays over into the characters’ interactions.

As part of her intro in the program, Brooks comments on the similarities between the two sisters and members of her own family. There is trauma, affection, love, and betrayal (in no particular order) between Elizabeth and Quilly. Brooks comments on seeing that relationship in her own family. As someone who shared a familiar dynamic in the relationship between my grandmother and her sister, that dynamic resonated with me.

The sisters carry the show. Their chemistry and “vibe” (Brooks’ words) were palpable in their performance. Borny as Jennifer bears the weight of decades of loneliness with quaint subtlety and poise.

Belk as Quilly deserves special commendation. In her first acting role in a community theater production, Belk delivers the play’s most humorous moments, and carries the narrative responsibility of seeming to know full well how this will all play out.

The chemistry between the two performers permeates so brilliantly that it shines through even in the final moments of their embrace as the lights dim.

TOP: Jennifer Thomas (Elizabeth Borny), Brock Brown (Husband Witherspoon), and Shiesha McNeil (Lou Bessie); ABOVE: Jennifer Thomas (Elizabeth Borny) in ’The Old Settler.’ Photos by Reed Sigmon.

Brock Brown returns to a collaboration with director Brooks as the naively unprepared-for-the-big-city Husband Witherspoon. His interactions, fueled by an innocence from ulterior motives, drive the emotional core of the play, and he navigates the character’s complexities with skill. There are many moments to show that these characters had escaped the racist South to find an equally racist New York City.  Husband, in justifying why he would avoid military service, comments: “I believe if they put me between one of those Japanese soldiers and one of those German soldiers and gave most white folks here a gun and told them to shoot, most of them would shoot me.”

While The Old Settler excels in many aspects, particularly in building characters that the audience can deeply connect with, the one minor quibble is the directing choice for actors to dedicate almost the entirety of their performances from center stage or center stage front. Any moment where a character would exposit or deliver more than one line would predictably be done from the same space.

Bowie Community Theatre’s rendition of The Old Settler is a compelling journey of family and personal legacy. The play’s exploration of love, family, and the resilience of the human spirit leaves a lasting impression. Whether you are a fan of historical dramas or simply enjoy a well-crafted story with relatable characters, The Old Settler is a theatrical experience worth attending.

As a storyteller with a penchant for diving into the personal connections between characters and audience, director Lorraine Brooks is someone to be watched (she returns to Laurel Mill Playhouse for her next production). Her works are something to be followed.

Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

The Old Settler plays through December 10, 2023, at Bowie Playhouse, located at 16500 White Marsh Park Dr. Bowie, Maryland. Purchase tickets ($25, general; $20, seniors and students) online, by phone at the BCT Hotline at 301-805-0219, or by email ([email protected]) prior to the performance date.

COVID Safety: Bowie Community Theatre recommends but does not require that patrons wear facial masks in theaters. BCT’s COVID-19 Policy is here. 

The Old Settler by John Henry Redwood
Directed by Lorraine Brooks; Assistant Direction by Jacqueline Youm; Intimacy Direction by Jonathan Ezra Rubin; Stage Management by Jana King; Technical Advising by Joyce A. A. Camper; Set Design by Dan Lavanga; Props by Lorraine Brooks, Jacqueline Youm, Penni Barnett, Alan Barnett; Lighting Design by Pete Dursin.

Elizabeth Borny: Jennifer Thomas; Quilly McGrath: Dionne Belk; Husband Witherspoon: Brock Brown; Lou Bessie: Shiesha McNeil


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