If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan

CIVIL RIGHTS WITH MUSIC IN “GEE’S BEND”  

 

“Gee’s Bend”, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s earnest new play with music currently on the boards at Hartford Stage, encompasses nearly 70 years in the life of an African-American woman and her journey to self-discovery and fulfillment during the civil rights movement.  It is an admirable, likable and well-acted play that suffers significantly from an over-familiarity of story and theme.

The fictional tale of Sadie (a fine Kimberly Hebert Gregory), her sister Nella (Tamela Aldridge), mother Alice (Miche Braden) and husband Macon (Teagle F. Bougere) covers a broad spectrum that almost begs for a film transfer as it struggles to contain its ambitious story within two acts and under two hours.  Sadie is a high-spirited 15-year-old when the play begins (1939) who soon finds herself in love and pregnant by Macon.  It’s a struggle during hard times, but eight children later Sadie is desperate to spread her wings and become a part of the growing Civil Rights movement.

What follows in “Gee’s Bend” is more familiar than inspirational.  Sadie’s trials and tribulations - as her loving husband of 25 years conveniently turns into a wife-abuser - allows her to experience the requisite triumph over adversity uplift demanded by the genre.  This includes a moving sequence that has Sadie drinking from a “whites only” water fountain; an action that, unfortunately, would have more resonance if we didn’t recall the exact same scene from the 1974 television film classic, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”.  

Indeed, much of “Gee’s Bend” has a Lifetime movie quality and its predictability and feel-good ending certainly makes it appealing for mass audiences.  But Wilder has failed to make this repetitive tale - it seems to have at least three endings - appear original despite the best efforts of all involved.

Gregory is a warm, impressive talent who easily convinces as both a youngster of 15 and a senior well into her seventies.   Braden, in addition to being a strong presence as Alice also plays Sadie’s daughter late in the drama and serves as the play’s musical director (“Gee’s Bend” incorporates some effective gospel singing throughout).  Aldridge steals many scenes as Sadie’s selfish but loving sister while Bougere, in a somewhat thankless role, still manages to infuse Macon with humanity and humor. 

Director Hana S. Sharif allows some scenes to play longer than they should but, given the episodic nature of the work, she deserves praise for the overall pacing and for eliciting strong performances from her four-member cast.  Linda Cho has done well with the period costuming but Scott Bradley’s jigsaw quilt scenic design is a head-scratcher that is helped somewhat by Lap Chi Chu’s expressive lighting.  “Gee’s Bend” is truly a mixed blessing.

“Gee’s Bend” continues at Hartford Stage through February 14th.  For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.

Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company.  He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com.  His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.
This review appeared in Elm City Newspapers beginning 1.27.10.


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