I caught one of the closing performances of Gee’s Bend last night at Hartford Stage. It was a real treat on a couple of different levels. First and foremost, it is an excellent production. Written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and directed by Hana Sharif, the play featured gospel singing, movement, and stellar acting. The stage design beautifully evoked the quilts the women of Gee’s Bend weave and there was a curving river upstage.
Some historical context from the official Quilts of Gee’s Bend website:
Gee’s Bend is a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma, Alabama. Founded in antebellum times, it was the site of cotton plantations, primarily the lands of Joseph Gee and his relative Mark Pettway, who bought the Gee estate in 1850. After the Civil War, the freed slaves took the name Pettway, became tenant farmers for the Pettway family, and founded an all-black community nearly isolated from the surrounding world.
The town’s women developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American (and African American) quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. The women of Gee’s Bend passed their skills and aesthetic down through at least six generations to the present. In 2002, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in partnership with the nonprofit Tinwood Alliance, of Atlanta, presented an exhibition of seventy quilt masterpieces from the Bend.
The play follows the life of Sadie and her family from 1939 to 2002. It’s about the quilts and how they unexpectedly brought notoriety to the town, but it’s also about the civil rights struggle, gender roles, and – above all – the enduring, sometimes maddening ties we have to our relatives. There are some wonderful bits of humor on that front.
Gee’s Bend deservedly garnered a very positive review in the New York Times. It’s closing its’ run here, but if it turns up at a theater near you, I urge you to see it.