Gee’s Bend, a three-part play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder (originally commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2007), is on stage at the Park Square Theatre in St. Paul through November 7th. The warmth of the relationships on stage is a good thing to experience during these first chills of autumn.
Gee’s Bend is an isolated community in Alabama, and the Pettway women—Alice/mom (Coré), Nella/elder sister (Thomasina Petrus), and Sadie/younger sister (Regina Marie Williams)—illustrate history for us through segregation, community activism, and the Civil Rights movement, and personal growth with a good dose of religion thrown in. Throughout the play is the Quilt: a metaphor for piecing together what’s good and left in a life well-worn and often times abused.
|gee’s bend, presented through november 7 at park square theatre. for information and tickets ($20), see parksquaretheatre.org.|
There’s a lot that is strong in this play: the music (directed by the Twin Cities’ own J.D. Steele) is delivered to us by strong female voices that weave through the performance like the interlocking patterns in a quilt. The set is sophisticated and flexible enough to provide backdrop to scenes on front porches, in a city park, near the river shoreline, and humble living rooms. And the acting is, in a nutshell, moving and often marvelous. Apparently this is Coré’s first theater work, and we are lucky to have her here! The quilts used as props make the point (moving from grey to colorful), but my friend and I would have appreciated stronger visuals to support the characters’ commitment to the quilts’ beauty and use.
Part one takes place in 1939, and the scene opens with a poetic display of three strong, related women (a mother and her two daughters) singing on a river bank during one daughter’s baptism. The use of fabric is elegant and the voices deep and eloquent. Unfortunately, the next few scenes take us back to the homestead where sisterly chatter turns into a cacophonous roar, which was distracting—the humor is there, it’s just too hard to understand. But overall, the scene makes its case: these women are strong and they will persevere using their personalities, “smarts,” and senses of humor.
Part two illustrates in more detail the diverse paths of the sisters. Alice moves to motherhood with a loving and good (or so we think) husband played with sensitivity and depth by James Young II. Nella continues as caretaker, humorist, and dreamer (the slim and sassy Alice getting the man, but of course, which seemed gratuitous). Nella’s voice is her vixen: she believes it to be great (and honestly, it is!) and to be her ticket “out” and/or to the heart of a rich man (which it isn’t—very unfortunately). There’s a wedding quilt created by Sadie, as well as baby quilts: we understand how life is progressing. Sadie, after numerous babies and years, develops her always existing strong-mindedness and encourages her sister to join her in a voter registration drive that includes a trip to see Martin Luther King, Jr.—a calculated risk well worth taking. Sadie’s activism moves into high gear with a visit to the nearby city of Selma for a Civil Rights/Voter Registration rally as well as for “the March.” It’s that spirit that ends up getting her physically hurt by her own husband first (as a “lesson”), and later by the police. She wears her scars proudly, but we know they’ve left an imprint on her spirit as well as her body. She wraps herself in her quilts that provide comfort and evidence of her much-needed and loved presence. Her marriage takes the first ‘hit’ and suffers, but her resilient spirit takes the second and keeps on growing stronger.
Part three takes place in 2002 with Sadie’s daughter (played by Coré, since her previous character has passed) doing the caretaking for her spunky mom and her humourous, and still sweet-spirited, often-senile aunt. We begin to have closure. New quilts are being made, still, by Sadie (Nella never could sew) and have become sought-after folk art. A strong-minded daughter wants to sell the land her parents gave parts of their lives for, an even stronger-minded mom is loving and supportive, yet firm in her resolve to keep the land in the family The now failing, but still humorous, aunt is there to remind us all of the unconditionality of (most) family relationships. And the quilts are hanging in art exhibits throughout the world. Who’d have thought?
The story of Gee’s Bend is familiar, and I can’t say that the play pulled me in. But the acting did, and the music was helpful, and the set provided interest when the story was lacking so overall my friend and I left feeling satisfied with the production overall. It’s always hard knowing that history has, in so many cases, proved awful and tough for so many. I’m not sure that this play does history, and all those monumental issues, justice; and I’m sure that the script is not as complicated as a well-sewn quilt. But it is of interest and certainly heart-warming in some respects, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s a gentle reminder of an era of American history that we should never forget—and maybe that’s enough.