Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder researched Gee’s Bend by interviewing women who wove quilts from tattered clothing and other scraps of their lives in an Alabama island community that gives the play its name. She was advised, “Just write it honest.” Wilder took that wisdom to heart, and it shines through the Cincinnati Playhouse’s current production of her moving story of one family’s journey across a half-century of American life.
Sadie (Bakesta King) is the plainspoken central character, a woman who perpetuates the craft of quilting she’s learned from Alice, her mother (Cherene Snow, who later plays Sadie’s daughter Asia).
Nella (Nikkole Salter) is her opinionated, tart-tongued sister who never learns to sew but who accompanies Sadie on her life’s long trajectory. Macon (Quentin Earl Darrington) courts Sadie, marries her and gives her children, then has a tough time coping with her evolving attitudes about Civil Rights and her own fierce independence.
The dynamic between the three women provides Gee’s Bend’s momentum, floating along on A Cappella hymns sung during transitions of Jack Magaw’s simple set of sliding panels suggesting the doors and windows of the modest, weather-warn homes on the island. A few historic moments are the anchors for turning points in Sadie’s life story — especially an outing to see Martin Luther King Jr. — but the more moving elements focus on troubles in her marriage with Macon, her strongly held opinions about making her own way and her powerful devotion to the land where her family has lived and loved for generations.
The beautiful quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend, today celebrated as gorgeous works of art in museum exhibitions, are both the backdrop and central focus of this warm-hearted play. The “little pieces of our lives,” as Sadie calls them, are comfortable objects meant to be shared, just like the stories onstage.
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