GEE'S BENDby Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
African American Repertory Theater
Director – Emily Scott Banks
Scenic Design – Prudence Jones
Lighting Design – Prudence Jones
Sound Design – Catherine M. Luster
Costume Design – Brittany King
Property Design – Angela Washington
Stage Manager – Angela Washington
Sadie – Regina Washington
Nella – Raven Garcia
Alice/Asia – Renee Miche’al
Macon – Artist Thornton Jr.
Reviewed Performance: 8/29/2014
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Gee’s Bend became an artistic phenomenon but it started during those slave and sharecropper days; the Pettway women made quilts, at first to keep families warm and give women a sense of community, then as a way to pay their way in the Civil Rights Movement happening all around them in 1965. It finally emerged into the art world through Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2002. The fabulous quilts made by the women of Gee’s Bend traveled to New York and museums across the country and the Freedom Quilting Bee became a national story of triumph and spirit.
Now Gee’s Bend is a play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, being produced by African American Repertory Theater. Directed by Emily Scott Banks, it follows the lives of Sadie, her mother, sister, and husband, as they cross sixty years of life from 1939 to 2002, with a stop in 1965. It tells Sadie’s story as she struggles to find happiness and make sense of her world, first as a teenager, then young mother, civil rights activist, and finally an old woman.
The stage was a series of empty, geometrically arranged wooden platforms in several elevations with wood fences behind. Fence openings became small frames for “out-of-view” gospel singers. This simple design by Prudence Jones provided a common platform for several locations in Wilder’s play, from an old plantation house where Sadie grew up to the house Macon built, Camden across the river, and the NYC museum. It even became a spot along the Alabama River. Jones lit the stage from above with colored spots that provided atmospheres for different times and places and with blue from below the platforms, perhaps representing the river. The river figured prominently in this play. Catherine M. Luster added the sounds of crickets, storms and birds, but also created a soundtrack including songs by the likes of Blind Lemmon Jefferson, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Boy Fuller, John Coltrane, even Sam Cooke.
Brittany King provided clothing representative of the three time periods, including old dingy rags they likely wore in the ‘30s, updated to 60’s print dresses and pastel wool overcoats, and even more modern clothing for 2002. Stage Manager Angela Washington doubled as Properties Designer and found a number of representational props, especially the many quilts and the bags of fabric for making them.
All of this provided a simple frame in which the story of the Pettway family and social history could unfold, with a mixture of acting and a bit of storytelling by Sadie. The Direction here made it hard to figure out time and location, as any indications were so subtle I didn’t know a change had happened until I heard it through dialog or exposition.
Gee’s Bend is Sadie’s story and Regina Washington played Sadie in a gifted performance. She gave Sadie a strong consistency but also showed an extraordinary character arc which included a teenager discovering womanhood, a mother dealing with children and a husband, an oppressed woman finding her strength as a powerful African American woman, and the wise matriarch of the next generation. With nuanced language, body posture and vocal ranges, Washington showed us a life fulfilled through the struggles of Sadie. Through her heightened performance, one often felt Sadie’s anguish and pronouncements of dreams and plans, which changed in style and intensity depending on how old Sadie was.
Raven Garcia played Nella, a counter-character to her sister, Sadie. Nella was younger, more impulsive, and more repressed. Garcia showed an arc from young teenager through her descent into Alzheimer’s, and her body and voice changed as her costume and makeup changed. As Nella transformed into an elderly caricature of herself, she began to say things we think but would never reveal, and Garcia made these scenes a welcome, comic relief.
Alice, during the ‘39 and ’65 timeframes, was created by Renee Miche’al. Sadie inherited her strength to endure her struggles from her mother, Alice, and Miche’al imbued Alice with the kind of strength we see in mothers, especially those in matriarchal societies. Alice’s language was old-fashioned, still being close to plantation life, and Miche’al’s vocal inflections displayed the Southern slang and accent of the time, often ridiculed today. She had a strong voice that never wavered as Alice entreated her daughters to live right, but she also showed a deep motherly love. By 2002, Alice had died and Miche’al became Asia, Sadie’s grown daughter. This character was a woman who carried forth the Pettway strength as a 21st century woman, “mothering” both her elder mother Sadie and Aunt Nella. It was as if the strength of Alice had moved through Sadie to empower Asia in her own womanhood.
Most scenes were introduced by a cappella gospel songs, sung by Miche’al and Garcia with occasional additions by Washington. The songs were themed to the story and repeated periodically. All three have strong church-trained voices that do real justice to those plantation songs, especially as a cappella requires a purity of tone and pitch. They created touching harmonies and powerful intros into each scene.
Artist Thornton, Jr. created the character of Macon, a headstrong farmer who learned through his father’s oppression to become his own man, own his own farm, plant his own fields, and build his own house. Macon was that powerful young man who swept Sadie off her feet, but also represented a force that was more subtle, yet worse in many ways, to Sadie’s personal journey. He was the face of resistance within the black community to changes Martin Luther King tried to create, especially when those changes came to his own household. Thornton played this evil resistance to Sadie in the way it always happens from within, in the guise of love and concern. Bravado as a proud man was interwoven by fear over what might happen because of his wife’s civil rights urges. He showed tender, yet flawed, love to Sadie in the way Macon spoke to her, yet Macon’s condescension and need to teach Sadie had to have some hatefulness as well. Thornton’s determined, romantic swooning gave way to cynical pronouncements, such as when Macon punished Sadie, saying “How else you goin’ learn?” As Macon began to get sick, perhaps Wilder’s way of showing the karmic result of that resistance, Thornton added chronic coughs to his lines and a steadily weakened physicality as Macon succumbed to illness. But the message softened in the end as he showed his true feelings for Sadie.
One criticism in this performance had to do with staging. During one of Macon’s most important moments, he revealed his inner struggles to Sadie, but Thornton was placed at the edge of the audience seating, facing Sadie up on the stage. His back was to the audience through this important revelation, so while the audience could hear him, his face was hidden from most as he delivered the important moment.
Gee’s Bend introduces its playgoers to the story of the quilts, now recognized in artistic circles as, "some of the most miraculous works of art America has produced." They hang in museums and sell for thousands. This play uses the quilts as a common theme and a metaphor for rising above oppression and squalor. Sadie says, “Give us our quilts; the quilts give us our freedom.” But Gee’s Bend is about the people of the community, a family, and one courageous woman. And in the end it’s about all of us as we discover our own path out of life’s oppressions.
African American Repertory Theater has once again delivered a story for the ages and for the people, a story about struggle by an American race, and the triumph of the people who rose above it. There’s history here. There’s an important human journey. And there’s a strong spiritual message. We just have to go and be a witness.
African American Repertory Theater
2600 North Stemmons Freeway #117
Dallas, TX 75207
Plays through September 7th
Thursday - Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Saturday at noon and 3:00 pm.
Ticket prices are $15.00 - $25.00.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.aareptheater.com or call the box office at 972-572-0998.