The Old Settler is a delightful play by John Henry Redwood. It takes place in 1943 Harlem and tells the story of two church-going sisters who rent a room in their home to a handsome young man.
PBS produced a much regarded film version of the play starring Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen as the sisters.
Let me tell you about the production I did.
The playwright was at the “meet and greet” the first day of rehearsal. He wished us good luck with a chuckle and left town quickly. He obviously knew the cast, and I got the sense he knew we were going to need luck. I later wished he had taken me to the airport with him.
A handsome actor was brought to town to play the character named “Husband,” the sisters’ new roomer. He was extremely nice, if not a little vapid. He stopped by my office one day after rehearsal and asked me if I knew anyplace in town where he could get “…some cool clothes”.
“What do you mean, ‘cool clothes?” I asked.
“You know …cool clothes.”
“Cool clothes? Like how cool? Cool in what way?”
“Just some cool clothes. You know …cool clothes,” he said with a charming smile.
He didn’t know how to ask the question and I didn’t know how to answer. I suggested he just go shopping “downtown”.
When Husband came to get his wig on, he always carried a Bible and a tattered paperback copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
He talked to me about Hamlet like it was a brand new play –like I never heard of it before. Like HE’D never heard of it before. The man would detail the plot to me and describe the characters. It was so fresh to him. I was shocked to read his bio in the program for The Old Settler that this actor had an MFA in acting from one of the most prestigious theatre programs in the United States.
“I’m going to play Hamlet someday,” he would tell me in awe everyday.
Good luck, Husband.
The actress who played Quilly was a sweetheart and very fun. A natural-born comedian onstage and off, but I don’t think she ever learned her lines. Ever. But she was so much fun I don’t think anyone really cared. Something would always come out of her mouth and it would be close enough.
Quilly had a costume change where she would exit the stage on one side and run around the set to the other side to put on a new dress and shoes. Running wasn’t in her nature. I could hear her huff and puff her way around to me. She’d be waving her arms, sometimes knocking things over on her way. Her sprint was just as funny as anything she did in the play.
One day she yelled at me.
She didn’t seem mad at me or anything.
I couldn’t tell what was going on.
“HIT ME RIGHT HERE IN MY STOMACH!” she said pointing to her belly. She explained to me that she had gas and if I hit her in the gut it would make her feel better.
“I can’t hit you,” I said.
“Oh, Lord, Jesus! Hit me, PLEASE!”
So I hit her lightly in the spot she wanted.
“Harder! Hit me HARDER!”
It took some convincing, but she finally coaxed me to wallop her a few times in the stomach. It worked. She felt better and thanked me.
Elizabeth was played by a Tony Award winning actress. I will call her “Petunia”.
Petunia let everyone know that she refused to wear a wig for The Old Settler.
She told the casting director, “I’m not going to wear a wig.”
She told the company manager who picked her up at the airport, “I’m will not wear a wig for The Old Settler.”
She told the stage manager, “I’m not wearing a wig. Don’t even ask me.”
No wig for Petunia. I realized I’d be styling Petunia’s hair every night.
Petunia then got wind the dresser for the show was a man (me). The theatre only budgeted the show for me to be the dresser.
I hired a fabulous female dresser named Carrie to dress Petunia while I would take care of her hair and dress the other actors.
Petunia insisted I do her hair in her dressing room rather than the hair room.
First dress rehearsal: I knocked on the dressing room door.
“Miss Petunia, it’s Dennis. Are you ready for me to do your hair?”
“Come on in. I’m ready,” she announced from inside.
I walked in the room and there Petunia was –in nothing but her bra and panties. She made no move to put on a robe or cover up. I did Petunia’s hair eight times a week in her dressing room –she was always clad only in her bra and panties.
Why did I hire a female dresser?
The costume designer went through dozens of dresses and shoes trying to clothe Petunia. She was especially picky about her shoes. She didn’t want anything with a heel. Nothing remotely period looking worked for her. Finally, Petunia brought in a pair of her own shoes to wear for the show –plastic sandals from Walgreens. No one dare question her choice. She wore the plastic sandals for the entire show.
Petunia didn’t care much for her dresser, Carrie. She simply refused to learn Carrie’s name. Every time she spoke to her, which was rare, she called her by a different name.
Deborah. Alice. Gina. Rose. Vera. Petunia wasn’t even trying to call her dresser by the right name.
Carrie and I laughed about this. I started calling Carrie, Vera.
Vera (Carrie) informed me that Petunia needed a new pair of pantyhose (which would be worn with her plastic sandals from Wallgreens).
She quickly needed another pair of pantyhose.
I certainly didn’t want to question why she was going through them so quickly. She wasn’t dancing or doing any combat in the show. It was best to just give her what she wanted and keep her happy.
I got a glimpse of Petunia’s feet when I was doing her hair. She had the longest toenails I had ever seen in my life. There were five little daggers on each foot. That’s why she needed a new pair of pantyhose every show.
Working on this play made me sad.
In my opinion, this production of The Old Settler was weak. Even the sweet story didn’t save the show and the reviews stank. The whole thing was a mess and Petunia was the reason. She was toxic.
I heard Petunia (remember: she’s a Tony Award winning actress) telling one of her fellow The Old Settler actors how tired she was. She hated show business. In her next breath she talked about her next job: playing Gertrude in Hamlet. She had booked this plum role at a very respected theatre with a well-known director, but she was dreading it. The man hired to play her Hamlet was another award winning actor.
Good luck, Petunia. Take Hamlet-loving Husband with you.
Luckily I got to do another production of The Old Settler in another city with an outstanding cast. I was redeemed.
Dennis Milam Bensie is a writer and, for thirty years, has made his living as a dresser in professional theatre all over the United States. Short stories and poetry by Dennis have been featured in numerous publications and his essays have been seen in The Huffington Post, Boys on the Brink, and The Good Men Project. He has three books published by Coffeetown Press. This essay is part of a series for Queen Mob's Teahouse on his experience working backstage.