In the spring of 2003, the playwright John Henry Redwood had a fatal heart attack in his Philadelphia home. A prolific writer and actor, he had amassed a body of work that included performances in TV and film (Mr. Holland’s Opus, Passion Fish), as well as on and Off-Broadway—in the year and a half before his death, for example, he had performed across America in James Still’s one-man show Looking Over the President’s Shoulder. It was his work as a playwright, however, that garnered him many honors and brought major recognition. His plays included Mark VIII:xxxvi and No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, but the piece for which he is best remembered is the highly acclaimed The Old Settler, which has enjoyed great success in theatres all over the country.
It was The Old Settler that brought Mr. Redwood into my consciousness. I was asked to write the PBS teleplay, which starred Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen and was directed by the latter. This was an assignment, not a collaboration. I met him only once, on the final day of filming in Los Angeles. That last day was magic. Everything had come together beautifully, and ended with a wrap-up party on the set. He had quietly appeared, a tall bearded man, reminiscent of—as other writers had dubbed him, and as he said he saw himself—“a lovable teddy bear.”
One of the strongest elements in his writing was his love and respect for women. Prompted, perhaps, by his great regard for his mother, grandmother and aunt, who had been strong influences, Redwood devoted his time and efforts to the fight against breast cancer, the disease that claimed the life of his mother.
In all his work, familial love, especially between women, was a motivating force. Nowhere was this more evident than in The Old Settler, in which the bond between the sisters, Elizabeth and Quilly, was stronger than the adversity that divided them. As Redwood said, “We can show love without always being loving.” Also: “We are not telling the history of our people until we feel comfortable telling of the contributions the black woman has made to our survival.”
The PBS production followed that mandate. It was written and directed by black women, featured two black female stars and, in a bold programming step, was produced by two women, one of whom was black.
I like to think that, in his honor, we did just what John Henry Redwood wanted.
Shauneille Perry is a writer-director. She was writer most recently of 100 Years of Black Beauties for Equity AIDS/Broadway.
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