"Gees Bend" at Hartford Stage

By Tom Nissley

Gees Bend is a town in rural Alabama - what’s left of a southern plantation that became a town because its owners defaulted and former slaves became sharecroppers. The town became famous because quilts made by the women of Gees Bend were found by a marketing group and both shown and sold to collectors throughout the USA. Elizabeth Gregory Wilder has created an ensemble theatre piece that stitches together fragments of the history of the town and of its people. The audience follows members of one family in particular moving through several generations of growth and change.

The town is surrounded by a river, and we first meet Sadie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) as she plays and prays by the riverside, and soon after is baptized in its waters. (An intriguing set, by Linda Cho, beautifully lighted by Lap Chi Chu, with varied backgrounds reflecting quilt designs, has a watercourse running through it). In a quick series of dialogues with her mother Alice (Miche Braden) and her sister Netta (Tamela Aldridge) we get a Mary/Martha picture of the two girls - one who sings, one who quilts and keeps house like her mother, and more than that we get a frame around the picture.

We are watching a women’s world unfold before us - even before Macon (Teagle F. Bougere) presents his dream of marriage to Sadie she has been sternly warned to resist his charms. But only a quick scene away, his charms can no longer be resisted, and he promises her he will build her a fine house. Bougere is a superb actor, who brings a sense of civility and caring to his role from early enthusiasm to later frustration with a wife who wants to be independent beyond his understanding. When he strikes out at her, and refuses to let her, beaten and bruised, into their home after she has defied him and gone off to march for rights in Selma, the frame has positioned him as persecutor, but perspective might allow us to see him as a victim, as well. When he dies, Sadie is left with confused memories and the question of what love means if he wasn’t 100% there for her every moment when she wanted him. It’s a question men and women should struggle with more often - a picture can be over-influenced by its frame.

Other pieces of patchwork that have been used by Wilder include the voters registration and the impact of Martin Luther King leading up to the Selma travesty, as well as the wonderful economic freedom that came to the women of Gee’s Bend when their quilts became famous. A touching sequence near the play’s conclusion shows an elderly and confused Nella getting ready to go with Sadie and Sadie’s daughter, Asia (Braden) to see Sadie’s quilts on display in an urban museum. The three women represent a family solidarity that declares ‘who we are is who we were - who we came from.’

I doubt that you will be able to see "Gees Bend" without remembering your own family, your own traditions, your own - parents, grandparents - fears and limitations. Ms. Wilder has built the friendly ghosts of the past into the framework of the script with musical interludes of spirituals; delineated in this production by a choreographed stepping through time by women beyond time. It’s a haunting and very effective device. The music has been arranged and directed by Miche Braden. The director is Hana S. Sharif. Together they have given Connecticut an unforgettable memory of Gee’s Bend. In fact, it would be hard to praise the whole ensemble sufficiently for the ways they have performed and worked together to make this play work. You will believe there are more than the company of four actors, and be touched and amazed by their team work and dramatic skills.

"Gee’s Bend" plays at Hartford Stage through February 14. I urge you not to miss it. Tickets and information at www.hartfordstage.org .

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre  January 25, 2009

Tom Nissley is a well-known realtor in New Canaan, and a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. He has reviewed plays and music events that expand the quality of life in Connecticut for 25 years, and he's also available, of course, to consult with you about real estate.

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