Gee’s Bend at Hartford Stage -- Creatively Crafted Patchwork
By Amy J. Barry
Historically based dramas can be tricky. Especially one like Gee’s Bend—currently at Hartford Stage—that encompasses so many big topics from poverty and segregation to civil rights, feminism, and issues of aging.
Such a play runs the risk of becoming didactic but for the most part, like the beautiful quilts that are its central metaphor, writer Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder pieces together a myriad of subjects and personal stories in a cohesive, character-driven production that’s directed with care by Hana Sharif, Hartford Stage artistic producer.
Wilder truly had great ‘material’ to work with—the amazing real-life story of the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama who quilted their way to economic freedom. Their quilts toured in a national exhibition in 2002 and one is on display at Hartford Stage, along with quilts by local artisans in the city’s Community Threads Project that coincides with the show.
Gee’s Bend takes place between 1939 and 2002 and involves five family members: Sadie (Kimberly Herbert Gregory), her sister Nella (Tamela Aldridge), their mother Alice (Miche Braden), Sadie’s husband Macon (Teagle F. Bougere), and Sadie’s grown daughter Asia (Miche Braden).
The most powerful element of this production is, in many ways, its backdrop. Scott Bradley has designed and executed a visually stunning set—a large vibrant abstract quilt crafted of wooden sections that connect and disconnect, forming various patterns, complimented by a colorful floor mosaic. A glistening river reflecting dancing shadows on the quilted wall—compliments of Lap Chi Chu’s exquisite lighting—becomes the site of a baptism in the first elegant and haunting scene in which Sadie, dressed in pure white, submerges herself in the water.
Sweetly sung original gospel melodies by Broken Chord Collective, directed and arranged by Miche Braden, are subtly interwoven throughout the performance.
Early on in the play, the teenage Nella becomes pregnant by the persuasive Macon, who promises her a house with a real cook stove, no locks on the doors, and lots of offspring. Under Roosevelt’s resettlement program, Macon was able to buy government land cheap and he imagines farming the land as his ticket to freedom.
Nella, on the other hand, has no interest in marrying a local farmer and being stuck forever in Gee’s Bend and prides herself on not being able to sew.
The action jumps forward to 1965 and surprisingly, it is Sadie, not her independent sister, who insists they cross the river to Camden to go see the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak about voting rights, suffering Macon’s wrath and paying the price when she dares to drink out of a “Whites Only” water fountain.
Macon inflicts the same violence and humiliation on his wife that he suffered at the hands of his white oppressors. It is the beginning of the end of their marriage. Ironically, in selling her quilts, Sadie will buy her freedom from her husband in the same way he bought his freedom from white men by purchasing land.
Braden gives a fine performance as Alice, the no-nonsense matriarch. Bougere successfully creates a character that is both sympathetic and infuriating. But the play’s strongest performance is the combination of Gregory and Aldridge as two very different people drawn together by blood, fighting to overcome economic hardship and prejudice, and find their voices as women.
These two marvelous actors age before our eyes from young foolish girls to frail but spunky elderly women without us ever having to suspend disbelief. We watch the loving tenderness with which Sadie attends the senile Nella, and how in the end, their similarities have become bigger than their differences.
In the final scene in the museum where the sisters’ quilts are on exhibit, Nella marvels, “people are spendin’ a lot of money to be lookin’ at our trash,” and Sadie responds, “We made ‘em because we had nothing else. It’s the glory of it all.”
There is one obvious timeline inconsistency: Sadie, in 1965, refers to her children as babies still sleeping in their beds when she’s already been married 26 years. We also don’t get much sense of her as a mother, until her adult daughter Asia is introduced near the play’s end. She is there to represent the younger generation of daughters—although the role doesn’t add much to the overall work.
But these are small complaints in the larger picture, which, like the women’s quilts, made of rags and disparate bits of fabric, somehow all fit together to create a compelling story about courage and pride and the bonds that can’t be broken.
Gee’s Bend runs through Feb. 14 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., downtown Hartford. For tickets call 860-527-5151 or online www.hartfordstage.org <http://www.hartfordstage.org> .
This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, Feb. 3-4, 2010.