Story: Boykin, Alabama, also known as Gee’s Bend, sits in a horseshoe-shaped turn of the Alabama River in western Alabama. It was founded in 1816 by Joseph Gee, a wealthy landowner from North Carolina who used slaves to work his cotton plantation. Eventually Gee’s descendants sold the property to a relative named Mark Pettway.
Following the Civil War, former slaves on the plantation worked the land as sharecroppers until the 1930s, when the federal government’s Resettlement Administration sold tracts of the land to African-American families in Gee’s Bend. While families in the area tilled the soil, many of the women, such as Alice and her daughter Sadie, crafted multi-colored quilts.
Sadie eventually married a man named Macon Pettway, who built a house for her and their children on his newly purchased acreage. As Sadie became more involved in the Civil Rights movement, her relationship with Macon turned increasingly strained as he worried about the threatening reaction of the nearby white population to Sadie’s participation in marches.
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Through all the turmoil, Sadie remained resolute, sharing a bond with her mother Alice, her sister Nella and her daughter Asia that culminated in national acclaim for the region for the artistic achievements of its residents and their quilt-making artistry.
Highlights: Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder wrote a one-act, 90-minute play about the history and residents of Gee’s Bend that focuses on the area through the character of Sadie for more than six decades, from her teen years to senior citizen status.
Wilder uses the geographic locale of Gee’s Bend and its history as a backdrop for a period of time that spans the Great Depression, the Civil Rights movement and into the 21st century, concluding in an exhibit of quilts from Gee’s Bend artists at the Whitney Museum in New York City.
Deanna Jent, artistic director of Mustard Seed Theatre, has crafted an affecting tribute to the denizens of Gee’s Bend with a finely wrought version of Wilder’s play, featuring splendid performances by her quartet of players.
Other Info: Strong technical work bolsters this engaging presentation. The sound design put together by Patricia Duffin and music assistant Evelyn Johnson, e.g., makes it easy to identify an era, from scratchy, old-fashioned phonograph records in the ‘30s to the sounds of Sam Cooke, the Supremes and others as the story advances through the decades.
Those signature quilts are emphasized not only by props master Meg Brinkley but also in Kyra Bishop’s set design, which features ramshackle living quarters in front of a veiled version of the artwork. The latter serves as a backdrop that can be illuminated in effective fashion by lighting designer Bess Moynihan. Dialect coach Sydney Frasure helps the cast with accents that speak not only of the characters’ cultural heritage but their geographic residence as well.
Jacqueline Thompson anchors the production as the willful Sadie. Intelligent and thoughtful, Sadie as interpreted by Thompson gives us an up-close-and-personal look at the triumphs and tragedies of this small-town, African-American inhabitant growing up in the long shadow of Jim Crow. While Gee’s Bend is a simple story told straightforwardly, Thompson makes it resonate with intelligence and emotional appeal.
Reginald Pierre does very fine work as Sadie’s hard-working husband Macon, whose lifetime ambitions are derailed when he cannot match his wife’s courage in the face of blatant racism, more fearful of reprisal by vigilantes than inspired by the Civil Rights marches led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Macon’s desperate act of violence against Sadie marks a sad and irrevocable turning point in their marriage.
Alicia Reve Like makes the most of the story’s humor in the person of Sadie’s nitpicking sister, Nella, who sees no use in quilting, reading, cooking or marrying the wrong man, content instead to make observations from the comfortable perch of her mother’s home.
Marty Casey fills out the quartet of players in dual roles, first as Sadie’s and Nella’s hard-working, philosophizing mother Alice in the early and middle years and then as Sadie’s grown daughter Asia in the 21st century, looking out for her elderly mother and aunt. Casey acquits herself well in both parts.
Gee’s Bend is as quiet and unassuming as the hamlet that gives it its title, and just as capable of delivering well conceived and executed art.
Play: Gee’s Bend
Company: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: February 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23
Tickets: $20-$30 (or Pay with a Can/Pay What You Can on Thursdays); contact www.mustardseedtheatre.com
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb
Watch HEC-TV’s telecast of the second annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards ceremony, which will be held Monday, March 17, 2014 at COCA.