"Gee's Bend," which opens at the Arkansas Repertory Theater Jan. 25, follows a mother and two daughters in an insular Alabama community as they quilt, marry, fight and fight for their dreams.
Commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and written by Elyzabeth Wilder in 2006, the play takes its inspiration from the real life women of Gee's Bend, a riverside community 60 miles south of Montgomery, made up of the descendants of slaves.
The women of Gee's Bend are known nationally for their quilt tradition, their designs geometric and African. But, as Gilbert McCauley, director of The Rep's production of Wilder's play says, "Gee's Bend is not about the quilts. It's about these women and their lives, how they were able to piece together a richness from the meagerness around them."
The story begins in 1939, when the families of Gee's Bend became landowners, and tracks one family through the Civil Rights era and to their quilts' first large-scale museum exhibit in 2002.
Wilder's main character, Sadie Pettway, is based on Mary Lee Bendolph, who was a key source for J.R. Moehringer's Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Los Angeles Times on the women of Gee's Bend. Moehringer wrote, "Gee's Bend is the last place on Earth still safe enough for children and dead folks to go walking after dark."
The history of Gee's Bend was first recorded by New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange, who visited a farming project there initiated by the federal government in 1930. In 1965, after Martin Luther King Jr. visited the community, the white folks across the river in Camden, Ala., shut down the ferry to Gee's Bend. That ferry wasn't restored until 2006. Gee's Bend residents lived in near seclusion, even as the efforts of a priest guided their quilts to the shelves of major department stores.
Wilder's characters are intuitive, intimate and ultimately far-sighted. To help the cast connect with each other and their own intuition, McCauley, a theater professor at the University of Massachusetts, gives the actors an exercise. He chooses a word — "dream," "freedom," "song" — and asks them to present a poem, gesture, sound or visual representation of that word. "That's how you get those personal stories, so that everybody contributes to a different way of seeing this play. It's definitely going to be different and much richer than I saw it in my head, because everybody is putting their little scrap into it. It's like the quilts," he said.
Gee's Bend is also known for its music — a cappella field songs rendered in harmonious rounds. The Rep show will incorporate music from a 37-track recording made in Gee's Bend in 1941 and 2002. "One of the challenges we've had is trying to figure out ways that the music doesn't feel forced, so that there's a meaning behind it. It's introducing us to something, or commenting what's going on, or there's juxtaposition with what's going on," said Adewunmi Oke, the dramaturgist for the production.
There will be play previews Wednesday and Thursday, Jan. 23 (pay-what-you-can-night) and Jan. 24, with pre-show director talks at 6:15 p.m. There will be a cast meet and greet after the official opening performance Jan. 25. The play runs through Feb. 10, with curtain at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$40.