“GEE’S BEND” STITCHES HISTORY IN PATCHES OF CLOTH


BONNIE GOLDBERG

In one of the most impoverished and isolated corners of the South, Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a community of freed slaves turned sharecroppers, have established a notoriety for an artistic accomplishment that assaults the eye with its boldness and beauty:  their quilts.  The domestic chore of stitching these quilts has passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter and some have even been self-taught.

The quilt top, which faces up on the bed, is highly personal, while the batting or stuffing and bottom can be a communal task.  Their compositions, which have been compared to the paintings of Henri Matisse and Paul Klee, have been named Housetop for a square-in-a-square Log Cabin design, Bricklayer for its resemblance to courthouse steps and Crazy quilt for its Fence Rail pattern.

When you sew a quilt, you stitch in your history and dreams with the patches and scraps of cloth, from old overalls or flour sacks, that forms a pattern and tells a story.  Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder traveled to Gee’s Bend, on the curve of the Alabama River, southwest of Selma, across from Camden by ferry, where cotton bloomed and many families named Pettway lived, to listen to the women and to record their tales.

The powerful result is “Gee’s Bend,” that is lighting up the Hartford Stage until Sunday, February 14 with its honesty and yearnings.  The play, filled  with stirring spiritual tunes, follows the lives of young Sadie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory), her mother Alice (Miche Braden) who teaches her the  art of quilting and her sister Nella (Tamela Aldridge) who wants no part in the sewing process.  Sadie is wooed by Macon (Teagle F. Bougere) to dream with him of the life they will have together, the home he will build and the children they will raise.  He gives her a shiny key as a promise, but Sadie tells him their door will always be open to family and friends.

Years later when Sadie expresses her need to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak and to register to vote as a free woman, that key becomes a devastating tool of brutality. When Sadie stumbles home bruised and beaten from a Civil Rights protest, she finds her door securely locked against her.

The story of these remarkable women extends into the twenty-first century, as this community of southern black ladies achieves recognition and financial reward for its artistic gifts, with books, museum displays, sales at Bloomingdales and commemoration on stamps by the United States Postal Service. Hana Sharif directs this inspiring work on a set illuminated by Scott Bradley.

For tickets ($23-66), call the Hartford Stage, 50 Church Street, Hartford at 860-527-5151 or online at www.hartfordstage.org.  Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees Sunday and selected Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m.

After the Sunday, February 7th matinee, members of the Gee’s Bend quilting community will discuss the play, their experiences and their creations.  Quilts, including one from Gee’s Bend, are featured in the theater’s lobby, upstairs and downstairs.

Enter a little known world where women have a tradition of honoring their life stories through their hand-stitched creations, where a quilt can be the staging for a picnic, the prize to cover the marriage bed, a shawl to soothe the sick or a way to achieve female financial freedom.  Wrap yourself in the story’s love and warmth.

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