'Gee's Bend' At Hartford Stage A Vibrant, Inspiring Work Of Art
January 22, 2010
With an imaginatively rich, splendidly acted, visually and sonically gorgeous "Gee's Bend," Hartford Stage introduces two talents to New England audiences: director Hana S. Sharif and emerging playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder.
Sharif holds the title of artistic producer at Hartford Stage, where she has overseen many readings of new plays. But this production marks her full-fledged directorial debut. In "Gee's Bend," her all-encompassing theatrical sensibility is made evident by the inspired contributions of her collaborators and cast members. Through spellbinding conviction, they bring Wilder's meticulously constructed, episodic drama to vibrant life.
Gee's (pronounced jeez) Bend is a poor farming enclave of about 750, nearly all descendants of enslaved African Americans who toiled on cotton plantations established in the 19th century on that insular stretch of the Alabama River.
In 2002, a national touring exhibition of 20th-century quilts stitched by four generations of "Benders," as the women call themselves, made their collective history and traditions famous.
Originally made out of necessity for bedding, the early quilts were pieced together for themselves and family members using scraps salvaged from worn-out clothing, recycled sacking and sewing remnants. The patchwork patterns are bold, abstract and improvisational, unique in the American vernacular.
One quilt maker told a curator that her handiwork "represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history."
Wilder's play illuminates that statement. Initially inspired by the quilt exhibition and catalog, the impetus flowered from her 2004 interviews with Gee's Bend residents. The chronological narrative, beginning in 1939 and ending after the opening of the art exhibition, is a fictionalized synthesis of their stories pieced together with the spirituals and gospel songs that are as rudimentary to the women's daily life as quilting.
"Gee's Bend" tells of three generations of one family, but Wilder focuses on the talented quilt-maker Sadie. We meet her as she falls in love, becomes pregnant and marries at age 15. In mid-life, she is profoundly stirred by the civil rights movement and actions espoused by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who traveled to that remote area in 1965. She has proto-feminist awakenings of her own, claiming her right to vote and joining King's march in Selma. Her newfound assertiveness and ability to earn an income by selling her quilts rips apart her marriage. Her uncomprehending husband, Macon, fears for their family's safety in that era of violent racial divide.
But "Gee's Bend" is also about ties between mothers and daughters, and especially between sisters. As written and performed, the women have full dimension and share a warm and sassy sense of humor.
Kimberly Hébert Gregory portrays Sadie with high spirits and a noble grace, guided by her character's intuitive morality.
Tamela Aldridge is a funny foil as her rivaling, egocentric sister Nella (whose talent is singing, for she never learned to sew). Miche Braden plays both the matriarch Alice and Sadie's daughter Asia with panache, and she also arranged the melodies the female trio sings with fervor. Teagle F. Bougere has a firm grasp on his role as Macon, so his performance will quickly deepen.
The designs for "Gee's Bend" are ravishing. Scott Bradley has created a mobile, abstract environment referring to the town's geography and distinctive quilt motifs. A winding, narrowing pool of water cuts the thrust stage. The flooring consists of colored strips echoing a dominant composition in the quilts, while the multi-layered, ornamental backdrop displays other patterns.
The original music by Broken Chord Collective and the colorful lighting by Lap Chi Chu are particularly important in filling the set changes with energetic portent.
Costume designer Linda Cho and movement consultant Traci Tolmaire also deserve acknowledgment.
This "Gee's Bend" is obviously a labor of loving commitment. It is an affirming and enjoyable testimony to a remarkably strong and resilient pocket of American lore and life.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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