“Gee’s Bend,” a touching, inspirational play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, based on true events – with snippets of gospel music as a bonus – has opened in the Paul Robeson Theatre, directed by Thomas W. Jones II. He’s back for what is becoming an annual visit.
Serendipity, the quality of finding something good, of surprising discovery, is often found in the Robeson, and it’s on the loose again with the pleasantly instructional “Gee’s Bend.” It’s a tale of rural Alabama black women, descendants of slaves, and their labor-of-love quilt-making, with skills developed over decades, their patchwork ultimately recognized as “miraculous” and displayed in cities across America and the Smithsonian.
Gee’s Bend is barely a dot on the Alabama map, a three-sided plot curled near a major river, connected by ferry to land, west of Montgomery, south of Selma. In 1816, a white landowner named Pettway arrived from the Carolinas with 47 black slaves. Today, about 900 people live in Gee’s Bend, mostly black, many with the surname Pettway, and it’s still home to a legion of quilters. Over the years, chroniclers and dialecticians and folklorists have flocked to this insular place to write about, photograph and record music, language and oral histories. A documentary exists: “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.”
The play about all of this lasts about 90 minutes, and it features the wonderful actress and singer Annette Christian, Leon Copeland, Mary Craig (a Robeson legend), Denise Smith and Chalma Warmley, the latter doing double duty as percussionist and vocalist.
We meet Sadie (Christian), Nella (Craig) and their mother Alice (Smith), as they quilt, chat, ponder and harangue. Sadie is curious about life beyond Gee’s Bend – she has a beau, Macon (Copeland), not welcomed by mama, and she dreams adolescent dreams. Nella doesn’t care much about the quilts – oh, she’ll thread a needle for you – and also longs for the mainland and a rich husband. Stoic mama just keeps on quilting, tsk-tsking at teenage prattle. It’s 1939 or so. The story follows the family’s life and trials until 2002.
There are many changes, of course. When Martin Luther King Jr. spoke through Alabama in the mid-1960s for voter registration, Sadie (now married to Macon with a houseful of kids) becomes active in the civil rights movement, bravely drinks out of a “White Only” fountain and soon heads to Selma for the “Bloody Sunday” march on March 7, 1965. She comes home bruised and beaten, causing uproar with Macon. Macon wants things left as they are: “Just ’cause you got a vote out there doesn’t mean you got one here,” he says.
And that ferry that brought Sadie home? To discourage blacks from voting, the white town fathers closed it down. Gee’s Bend went without the carrier for 44 years.
When the art world discovered the quilts – the ones that Sadie says contain “blood, sweat, tears, with our lives melted into them,” the attention amazed the Pettways and others. “We made them ’cause we had nothin’ else,” they said.
Audiences must pay close attention to stay abreast of the passage of time; there are only subtle clues. The gospel songs – short passages while scenes change – are meaningful and moving.
Director Jones wastes few moments. It’s slow going near the end, though – Nella’s memory is dimmed, Sadie still wise but arthritic – a mar on this otherwise brisk and enjoyable story.
What: “Gee’s Bend”
Where: Paul Robeson Theatre, African-American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Ave.
Through: June 1
Info: 884-2013, www.aaccbuffalo.org