CLEVELAND — Forget, for a moment, that the characters in Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play “Gee’s Bend” make quilts.
“Gee’s Bend,” which opened last week at the Cleveland Play House’s intimate Baxter Stage, is not about a group of people who sit around, sew and talk endlessly about cloth. Wilder could have easily written a such a play, and it might have held our interest for a while; these quilts, made by residents of the real-life town near an Alabama river are world famous and have been displayed in many museums. Still, how long can those of us who do not appreciate the clothing arts listen to talk of intricate patterns?
Thankfully, we need not ponder that question.
Even if you don’t know what a quilt is, there’s a great chance you’ll be moved by Wilder’s intimate, honest and sensitive portrait of a tiny community of blacks in Alabama who survive hard times with grace, courage and emotional strength.
Wilder, an Alabama native, did extensive homework; she visited Gee’s Bend, after becoming enamored with the colorful quilts. Several of its residents took her in and told her stories about themselves and the town.
“Just write (the play) honest,” one of the residents encouraged her.
That she did.
The 90-minute play is divided into several segments, each representing a decade of historical significance in Gee’s Bend.
In the 1930s, when the play begins, Gee’s Bend was one of the nation’s poorest communities. Its population was descended mostly from slaves owned by Mark Pettway, who bought a local plantation and moved 100 slaves from North Carolina in the early 1800s. Many of the residents still carry the name Pettway.
After many years of hardship, the federal government offered relief programs which allowed residents the chance to own their own homes and land.
In 1965, the play’s second segment, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at a Gee’s Bend church, putting Gee’s Bend on the map and news. Many residents took the ferry across the river to vote and march with King, prompting local officials to close the river ferry in retaliation. That left residents with a long, lonely road into and out of town.
All was quiet in Gee’s Bend until 2002, when the quilts once again heaped attention on the hamlet. That was also the year plans were in the works to bring back the ferry, which returned in 2006.
As many years as the play encompasses, Wilder’s work is a marvel of economy (it lasts 90 minutes without an intermission).
Wilder tells the story in linear fashion. As the historical events unfold, fictional Gee’s Bend resident Sadie Pettway comes of age, and learns the importance of tradition. We can identify with her, because her early life mirrors the experiences of many: rebelling against parents, experiencing sibling rivalry and dating someone against a parent’s wishes.
Despite the fact they’re poor, Sadie and her family work hard, trying to attain the “American Dream.” Much of their hard work revolves around making quilts that have been a family tradition for a long time.
The quilts are a source of strength and pride for the family, as Sadie eloquently notes.
“The Lord gave us our quilts and the quilts give us our freedom,” she says at one point.
Wilder’s writing is fresh, expressive, and the haunting gospel songs the characters sing vividly reflect their moods.
If there’s a knock on the play, there is at least one “false ending”; the playwright reaches a point which seems like the perfect time to end the play, and we think it’s over. Instead, the play drags on unnecessarily.
But enough negative criticism.
Certainly none is in order for the production’s impressive cast.
Erika LaVonn, who has Broadway experience, radiates a youthful, vivacious spirit as young Sadie. LaVonn’s Sadie grows into a confident, determined woman who will not be denied her rights.
Equally impressive is Wandachristine as sister Alice. The actress transforms smoothly from a wisecracking youth to a mature, expressive person and eventually, an elderly, confused woman loosing her mind.
Wendell B. Franklin is commanding and has a fright-inducing, sharp voice as Sadie’s abusive husband, Macon.
The characters are costumed in clothing with colorful patterns, which reflects the quilts. Even the stage floor has patterns.
Such signs that remind us of quilts are appropriate.
It would be a shame not to draw attention to these award winning works of art.
But Gee’s Bend, an impressive work of art in and of itself, is about so much more.
AaronKrause is a Reflector staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com.