Sophisticated Lady

CCH Pounder talks about where she’s been, where she’s going and her role in “The Old Settler” at the Pasadena Playhouse

By William Campbell
May 1998 *

For CCH Pounder, stepping up onto the Pasadena Playhouse stage in the pivotal role of Elizabeth within John Henry Redwood’s The Old Settler is simply the latest stop on a creative journey that began in definitively atypical fashion back in England at nine years of age.

Whereas most performers can reminisce over a defining moment that happened to them as children: seeing Gene Kelly dance, or watching Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, that’s just not the case with Pounder. For her, it all goes back to a memory-jarring knock on the head that led to the discovery of her flair for the dramatic.

“I got an early start, yes. Not: ‘Oh I want to be an actor!’ having seen something, but because I had a cricket accident,” she says with a laugh, refering to the thoroughly English sport. Hit by a ball on the back of the head which left her, as she puts it, “a little woozy,” Pounder soon found herself after the accident being made to learn poems to increase her memory. It proved to be the key that unlocked the door to her naturally theatrical side.

“It was in the reciting back of the poems to my teachers that they said ‘ Oh, we’ve got something here,'” says Pounder.

Thus it was that from the impact of an errant and wicked googley that a star was born. Out of the ordinary? Absolutely, but then Pounder is every bit an out-of-the-ordinary kind of lady, making it clear that she confidently travels down a career path of her own choosing. Want evidence of that? You’ll find that with her decision to depart this season from the mother of all smash-hit TV shows, ER.

“I didn’t have enough to do, and I was already told that they weren’t developing the character so it would have been hard, once I had that knowledge, to stay.”

When it’s pointed out that there are a lot of actors who would not do what she did, her confidence is apparent.

“That’s a matter of security and settling for dollars and cents, but I’ve starved sufficiently that the memory’s there to remind me that I can starve a little longer to get what I want as opposed to what I’m dished out.”

Born in Guyana, South America, Pounder, the CCH of which stands for Carol (“Christmas day birth”), Christine (“my godmother”) Hilaria (“my grandmother”), lived there until the age of 7, when she moved to England. At 19 she came to the United States and lived in upstate New York where she attended Ithaca College, turning professional the day she graduated and soon hitting the regional theater circuit.

Pounder is clearly not one to waste any time or let anyone else chart her own course. Post ER, Pounder has already gone out for another pilot and gotten it and said she will know by the end of this month if it (“The show’s so new it doesn’t even have a name!”) will be picked up as a series. “The point is that if you want to make a change you have to do it. You can’t hang around to the last minute.

Enter John Henry Redwood’s character of Elizabeth, a 50-something woman who has done exactly what Pounder counsels against: spent her years being led rather than leading. One can quickly gather this is not the standard Pounder vehicle.

“She’s a wonderful character to play because if you’re accustomed to playing fairly strong, boisterous and tough women, Elizabeth is a wonderful kind of silent strength to play. She doesn’t have too much spark or fire because she’s taken it all and made excuses for all the abuses she has suffered. Through her life, whether imagined or real, things have passed her by, and at the moment we meet her in the play, her one chance at love is coming through the door.”

The Old Settler focuses on Elizabeth and her recently divorced sister Quilly (played by Jenifer Lewis), who quarrel with and love each other while living together in a Harlem apartment in 1943. In the jargon of the era, Elizabeth is considered an old “settler,” a woman deemed to have few marriage prospects because of her age.

But the sisters’ tranquil life rapidly changes when they take a handsome young male border named Husband (played by Christopher B. Duncan) and Elizabeth and he soon fall in love. To Elizabeth, Husband may be her last chance for romance, but Quilly dismisses the relationship as nothing more than a temporary infatuation.

“It’s very nice for me to be unraveling in something as opposed to being so very together,” says Pounder.

Directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps, this is not the first time the two have worked together. Epps directed a production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabbler” at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in which Pounder starred.

Epps’ involvement in The Old Settler was a principle component in her decision to take on Elizabeth — again.

“He called and told me that he was doing this piece and he didn’t realize that I had done it before — in Russia of all places,” she says with a laugh. “I had done it with the O’Neill Theatre Festival several years prior when it was a work in progress. It was really a great deal of fun.”

But she points out that this production is a “completely different play.”

“Jenifer is the wild child of the theater so it’s a whole different kind of Quilly who can really push Elizabeth’s buttons which I think is terrific. And Chris Duncan, who is not a country bumpkin in any sense of the word, but brings a different kind of naiveté with him that he can use, therefore there’s a marvelous innocence about him. The cast is not at all what I expected-which is wonderful for me because it gives me a whole new show that’s really come together in a remarkable way.”

Summing it all up, Pounder considers The Old Settler to be about a woman “coming to her senses about herself” and realizing she has to take responsibility for her life. “In that sense,” she adds, ” regardless of the date that it’s in, it translates into today and tomorrow.”

And what of tomorrow for Pounder? In demand and command as she continues to chart her own course and take on other projects — a current one of which concerns her strong interest in making the movie to be developed from a new novel coming from Donald Rawley titled “The Night Bird Cantata” (“one of the great hot books coming out”) — she’s looking to do perhaps “one piece of theater” each year in addition to her film and television work.

No “settler” she.

Originally published in the Pasadena Weekly.