With just a little study, common objects such as clothes, meals or furniture can speak volumes about the way people live. The most moving and compelling plays, however, are always about people, not material things. Crowns, produced by the Alliance Theatre in 2003, built a rollicking musical about the church-hat culture of African-American women. Though the play featured some de facto characters to string the scenes together, it felt that Crowns ran out of things to say about headwear before it ended.
Quilts unquestionably provided the pretext for the decades-spanning drama Gee's Bend, now playing at Theatrical Outfit. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned Mobile, Ala., playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder to write a play inspired by the famed quilts of Gee's Bend, subjects of recent exhibits at New York's Whitney Museum and Atlanta's High Museum. Quilts provide a frequent, colorful presence in Gee's Bend, but Wilder clearly emphasizes people first and local history second. Gee's Bend has its priorities straight, even though the intriguing drama hits some thematic snags.
The drama seldom mentions dates, but spans the better part of a century. Early scenes allude to the Depression-era Farm Administration, while the play ends with the quilts hanging on walls of major museums. Primarily the action follows Sadie (Michele McCullough Hazard), who learns to quilt from her mother, Alice (Donna Biscoe), and pursues a secret affair with young farmer Macon (Eric J. Little). Sadie, like the audience, gravitates to Macon's exuberant ambition as he seeks to buy his own land, seizing opportunities seldom afforded black people in the sharecropping community.
The play's most compelling scenes, not surprisingly, arise from the charged conflicts of the Civil Rights era. (Last year at this time, the Outfit's Waiting to Be Invited found similar heat in restaurant desegregation.) One charming sequence finds Sadie and her earthy sister Nella (Shontelle Thrash) waiting for Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at a church voter-registration drive. Where Sadie pursues the rights to vote and drink at whites-only water fountains, Nella and Macon prove more fatalistic. Despite being on the right side of history, Sadie's naiveté brings her up short at the violent 1965 march on Selma. Macon, meanwhile, opposes her pursuit of social justice: "Just because you got a vote out there, doesn't mean you got a vote in here!"
Sadie's quilts serve almost as silent witnesses to the highs and lows of the marriage. As young lovers, they picnic on a quilt. Sadie celebrates their marriage by making a traditional wedding quilt. Quilts become towels or shawls to soothe the sickly. When Sadie gets a chance to sell her quilts for a tidy sum, they become a means of female independence comparable to Celie's pants business in The Color Purple. When Sadie must decide whether to sell her wedding quilt, her dawning feminism struggles against her sentimental feelings for Macon.
Hazard and Thrash age at least 50 years in the course of the play, with decades at times passing in seconds. Director Gary Yates keeps such transitions smooth. Hazard proves particularly well cast as a woman whose determination crosses decades. In Gee's Bend and in other performances, the actress often makes young roles seem wise beyond their years while infusing older ones with the spark of youth. She doesn't need to exaggerate her traits to act her character's age.
Some too-showy symptoms of illness can make Thrash and Little's performances distract from the action, but otherwise the cast superbly fleshes out the script. The playwright doesn't always make it easier for them, at times crafting her themes and symbols with a heavy hand. When Macon, charmingly, offers Sadie a key as a promise to build her a house one day (and substitute engagement ring), she subscribes to her mother's view that houses should not have locks: "You leave your doors open for other people, they leave theirs open for you." That pleasant idea inevitably becomes a source of friction, but it's like the door lock is the real problem, not the greater philosophy of community.
Other aspects of the production speak to more timeless themes, like how the recurring use of such gospel songs as "How I Got Over" illustrates the town's religious foundation. Rather than give the set some kind of obvious quilt backdrop, designer R. Paul Thompson alludes to the community's location at the bend of the Alabama River. A row of wooden slats arches over the performing space like a dock bent into a crown, reinforcing the idea of Gee's Bend as a riverside community.
At the end of Gee's Bend, the elderly Sadie delivers a speech about the quilts that sums up their importance without being strictly necessary to the drama. The evolution of Gee's Bend and the changes in Sadie's family (Biscoe also plays Sadie's grown daughter, a successful career woman) make a fascinating subject without needing the quilts to hook the audience. Michael Schweikardt's quilt designs prove lovely and intriguing, but they're just frills to the drama. The lives of women like Sadie provide Gee's Bend with its true fabric.
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