Feminist fiber art


Never-married, Nella Pettway possesses an independent spirit, radical for her times. She is her own woman, even as a teenager. Nella was a feminist before ever hearing the term. Her sister Sadie is a different story. Sadie is the more traditional of the two, doing what is expected of a young woman of her time and station. But she, too, came to embrace feminism through an unusual vehicle: handmade quilts.

Sadie and Nella are two characters in the play “Gee’s Bend,” opening at Park Square Theatre Oct. 15. The play offers a glimpse into these characters’ lives based on the African-American quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend, Ala., a rural hamlet tucked into a curve of the Alabama River, southwest of Selma. The play spans over 60 years, 1939 to 2002. Through times of segregation and the civil-rights movement, the Pettway family perseveres.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is that the women make extraordinarily beautiful quilts, the skill being passed down from mother to daughter for more than six generations.

But it’s doubtful that the early quilters saw themselves as producers of exquisite textile art. They were housewives and daughters doing what was necessary to keep their families warm in drafty, unheated shacks. “They pieced together whatever leftovers [fabric scraps] they could find,” said the play’s director Austene Van. “It’s not like they could go to the Wal-Mart and buy a blanket.”

In the beginning of the play, the quilters are piecing together scraps from boys’ pants. “Now that’s recycling in the finest way,” said Regina Marie Williams, who portrays Sadie. “They definitely turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”

Minnesota textile-fabric artist Toni Easterson agrees. “The quilts are beautiful, beautiful things; their design sense is innate.” But the earlier quilters were “just hell-bent on surviving, feeding their kids, making ends meet,” Easterson said.

Gee’s Bend quilts that were once viewed as merely functional now hang in the Smithsonian and on the market carry a price tag ranging from $700 to $30,000, according to Tinnie Pettway, 74, a current member of the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective. Today, “buses come from Mobile, Montgomery and a lot of different places to look at the quilts” at the community center where the women do their group work, said Sarah Benning, another quilter.

The play, “Gee’s Bend,” requires Sadie and Nella to age more than 60 years. It could have been a casting nightmare, but director Van said she “got the right people to do it and they’re amazing.” Plus, “they all sing.” Although the play is not a musical, there is quite a bit of singing. As the quilters come together to quilt the pieced top to the back, with batting in between, they sing, Van said. “For them the quilting is almost like church. One of the current Gee’s Bend quilters said God told her they need to sing as they quilt.”

But the design and piecing of the quilt tops is a highly personal and private part of the process, each woman drawing her inspiration from the essence that makes them who they are. And in the play, snippets of Sadie’s and Nella’s lives tell the story of how they grow and evolve, especially Sadie, the sister who gets married because she thinks she’s supposed to, who has her husband’s babies because she thinks she’s supposed to, who shows her spunk during an incident that occurred at the height of the Civil Rights movement, according to Van.

According to Williams, the play also unveils the rich texture of the family and interaction between the sisters and their mother, Alice. In one scene, they’re hot-combing in the kitchen (straightening their hair with a metal comb heated on the stove); then Sadie reads aloud to her mother and sister from the newspapers plastered on the walls to keep out the cold.

“This is a story that needs to be told,” Williams said. “There aren’t enough stories told that show women’s strength, independence and beauty. These are women who are not taking handouts; they’re making their way in this world, surviving.” And, Williams continued, “I like that the women are doing it by themselves. They were early feminists in their own way.”