Stitching a Life Together
By Geary Danihy
There are two stories flowing through “Gee’s Bend,” a play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder that recently opened at The Hartford Stage. One is the chronicle of three generations of women who lived in an isolated Alabama town and found ways to survive the Depression, segregation and social unrest, experiences that powered the creativity seen in the quilts they and their female neighbors stitched over the decades. The other story is a chapter in the “black experience.” The former is engaging and entertaining; the latter is more sermon than play. Fortunately, for the audience, the drama outweighs the didacticism, making “Gee’s Bend” an essentially moving theatrical experience.
The actual Gee’s Bend is a parcel of land five miles wide and seven miles long that is embraced on three sides by the Alabama River. It was settled in the early nineteenth century by slaveholders who relied on cotton for their livelihood. The estate remained under the control of various white families until the early 1900s, when it became financially insolvent. As the social structure changed, the black tenant farmers still working the land relied on cash advances from a merchant in nearby Camden to make ends meet.
The Depression saw this reliance severed, with the widow of the Camden merchant “foreclosing” by sending men into the hamlet to grab whatever they could, leaving the tenants destitute. However, various federal programs during the Roosevelt administration provided loans that allowed tenants to buy the land they were working and build houses that solidified their attachment to that land.
The federal programs ended and Gee’s Bend faded into the mist of history, only to reappear, Camelot-like, as the rest of the world took notice of the artistic merit of the quilts the hardscrabble women of Gee’s Bend had created out of want, need, desperation and hope.
It’s a potent, trenchant story that comes to vivid, melodic, rhythmic life thanks to Hana S. Sharif’s empathetic direction and the efforts of the four actors whose personas fill the stage with a pyrotechnic sense of the tragedy and triumph inherent in a life of frustrations and epiphanies.
The play opens with Sadie (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) communing with her God at the bend of the river. Two “spirits of the people,” bedecked in white, appear and dance around Sadie, their movements evoking African dance steps and Greek chorus movement.
Sadie moves from the river into her family’s home, dominated and centered by the matriarchal Alice (Miche Braden) and roiled by sister Nella (Tamela Aldridge). The family dynamics are soon established: Momma is wise and lovingly demanding; Sadie is set on a “safe” course of marriage and family-building; and Nella is the essence of “I won’t” – I won’t learn to cook; I won’t learn to quilt; I won’t…conform.
Much of the play’s power and delight is created by Gregory and Aldridge as they early establish their sororal relationship – a game of best and bested that provides one of the central tensions in the play and leads to a loving, if somewhat delayed, denouement that involves a dropped piece of candy and a gospel song.
The other center of gravity is Nella’s marriage to Macon (Teagle F. Bougere), which begins in an idyllic manner and ends in the reality of conflict between perceived security, gained at a price, and an inchoate desire for change and self-definition that comes with the concomitant threat of retribution and destruction.
This all leads to a wrenching scene in which Nella, wounded in what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” when 600 civil rights marchers crossed a Selma bridge and were attacked by state and local police with billy clubs and tear gas, returns home only to find she has been locked out by Macon, who fears that any challenge to the established order will bring hellfire and brimstone down on the home he has created. Her banging on the door, which ends the first act, is worthy of the finest moments in theater – we have two people who love each other torn apart by fears and phantoms. When Macon walks off into the dark of his house as his wife begs for entrance, we see the essence of modern tragi-comedy.
There are other essential moments in the play, but to fully experience them the audience must attend closely to what the three female actors say, because hints are dropped early on that become major plot points, leading to a gripping monologue delivered by a now addled Nella that explains earlier allusions and captures the horror of disenfranchisement.
There are many such moments of dramatic intensity in this play, all of them enhanced by the efforts of scenic designer Scott Brady and lighting designer Lap Chi Chiu. The two of them have created a presentational environment complete with a bending river that glistens when necessary and backdrops that evoke both the designs of the quilts the women of Gee’s Bend created and the enclosed and restrictive nature of segregated Alabama. In essence, Brady and Chiu’s efforts fulfill all of the demands of set design: esthetic satisfaction, mood enhancement, establishment of locale and period, and enhancement of the play’s “experience.”
The only false note in “Gee’s Bend” is the “I have a dream” monologues that Wilder has given to Sadie, who is called upon to instruct the audience about the gravity and meaning of what is being presented. The story tells the tale very well; an attentive audience does not need to be lectured. Yes, the play has messages, some of them ponderous, but the most telling moment involves not riots and beatings, not weighty considerations of “race issue” but rather a piece of candy falling to the floor. That little “click,” and Sadie and Nella’s response to it, says volumes – this is who we are; this is our history; this is why, after all, we love each other. This is why we endure.
It’s a lovely, fulfilling moment.
“Gee’s Bend” runs through Sunday, Feb. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to hartfordstage.org/
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.