LITTLE ROCK Gee’s Bend is a play that transcends its source, the town of Gee’s Bend, Ala., or its focus on the famous quilters of that town, whose very isolation contributed to its destiny.
Written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, the play is set in an area south of Selma now known as Boykin that is almost inaccessible except by ferry over the Alabama River. For 44 years, beginning in 1962, there wasn’t even a ferry.
Gilbert McCauley, whose past work at the Rep includes directing Looking Over the President’s Shoulder in 2009, is directing Gee’s Bend, which features four actors: Corey Jones, Nambi E. Kelley, Shannon Lamb and Monica Parks.
“I had heard about the quilts, and saw a documentary,” McCauley says. “But the play is not really about the quilts, but the women who made them. We see the quilts, but the real focus is the story of their creators’ lives. The play works on a couple of levels. The shape of the area, how they’re so isolated from everything else, reveals how their environment impacts them and the quilts.”
Kelley plays Sadie, the character whose life is followed in the play. The story begins in 1939, later advancing to 1965, in the midst of the civil rights movement that swept the South and included a visit to Gee’s Bend by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The play concludes in 2002, when “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
“I play Sadie at ages 15, 41 and 78,” Kelley says. “It’s wonderful to see her change through those years or, rather, it’s going to be wonderful!And there’s lots of singing.”
Lamb, playing Nella, Sadie’s older sister, is a veteran of past Rep productions (Voices at the River I and II, It Happened in Little Rock and The Full Monty) and Murry’s Dinner Playhouse shows (Annie, Little Shop of Horrors and Smokey Joe’s Cafe).
“In the play, there’s always a conflict between Sadie and I because I’m older and I think I know it all,” Lamb says. “Nella refuses to learn how to cook, clean and sew, because she has a deep desire to break away from the darkness of Gee’s Bend - she yearns for something more than tending the land and cleaning the floor - and thinks that some rich man will come along and sweep her off her feet.”
Parks plays a couple of characters, starting with Alice, Sadie’s mother.
“I also play her daughter in later years,” Parks says. “I saw the documentary and some of the quilts, which came to the History Museum in St. Louis, where I’m from.”
Jones portrays Sadie’s husband Macon, the only male character.
“We see the courting of Sadie when she’s 15,” he says, “and then the play jumps ahead 25 years to the ’60s, and we see the maturation of their relationship. Plus we see how the civil rights movement is playing on a micro, intimate level on our relationship, because Sadie embraces the movement, but Macon, being a son of the South and the ‘Jim Crow’ era, is hesitant and apprehensive to join it and fears for her life, the life of the family. So you see a tension that in some cases tears them apart, creating a fissure in their relationship.
“It was close enough to Selma that Sadie talks about walking there to catch a bus.”
Mike Nichols designed the set; Yslan Hicks is the costume designer; Allan Branson is the sound designer; John Horner is the lighting designer; Lynda J. Kwallek is the properties designer; and dramaturgy is by Adewunmi Oke.
McCauley says the quilts represent the scraps of the women’s lives, assembled into what become acclaimed works of art.
“They’re not just beautiful, but transcendent, as they made something almost out of nothing,” he says.” At one time, Gee’s Bend was one of the poorest communities in the nation, which led to the federal government getting involved in the area early on.
“The fact that they were able to make something beautiful out of something so bitter is a testament to the women and their lives and their creativity and spirituality.”
In 2006, the ferry returned to service and there are those who hope to make the area a historical attraction. A story on 60 Minutes brought more attention to the area.
The Clinton School of Public Service will host a panel discussion on the play from noon to 1 p.m. today at the school, 1200 President Clinton Ave.
The panel will include the Rep’s producing artistic director, Bob Hupp; the play’s director, McCauley, and the play’s cast. There is no cost to attend, but the school asks that interested patrons call (501) 683-5239 for reservations.
7 p.m. today, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, with additional performances at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 10, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Sixth and Main streets, Little Rock
Preview performance: 7 p.m. today with pre-show director’s talk from 6:15 to 6:45 p.m.
Tickets: $25-$40; $5 off advance purchases through today
Sign-interpreted performance for the hearing impaired: Wednesday only
Student tickets: $15 for tonight’s preview performance with valid student ID
Weekend, Pages 37 on 01/24/2013
Print Headline: Rep wraps history in quilts with Gee’s Bend