Dallas — In 2002 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston an exhibition entitled “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” opened, introducing the world to richly colored and uniquely designed works in fabric. As the exhibition wound its way to the Whitney Museum of American Art, a play was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The result was Gee’s Bend by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Right now it’s onstage at the K.D. Studio Theatre presented by African American Repertory Theater, in its regional premiere, directed by Emily Scott Banks.
If you are looking for anything to do with the actual making of these famous quilts, you will be disappointed. Playwright Wilder ignores the way in which these women work their patches of fabric in favor of the way they work the patches of their lives: saving the good by cutting the bad and combining it all into beautiful, distinctive creations. Neither is the result of planning, but both contain a bold beauty.
Regina Washington begins the play as 15-year-old, Sadie, who has learned the quilting from her mother, Alice (Renee Miche’al), but is more focused on Macon (Artist Thorton Jr.) who has been paying her a lot of attention much to the chagrin of her older sister, Nella (Raven Garcia). All that attention will take Sadie from young girl to expectant mother sooner than expected. And so, the blanket begins.
From 1939 to 2002, time marches on but the location stays in place: a small bend in a large river. Playing the vast age change can be a challenge. Washington carries the larger burden, as she has to open the show, but Garcia’s character Nella ages dramatically, though to more comedic effect. Miche’al begins as the matriarch, Alice, but gets to come back as a young and anxious-to-move-on granddaughter Asia.
Though the play follows Sadie most closely, playwright Wilder uses her characters to give us different perspectives on the challenges facing women in this geographic microcosm. From young love to marriage and making a life the stories are rich and compelling on their own, but add to them the Civil Rights struggle and you have a work that stands as a historical document, as well.
Occasionally, this can feel as though Wilder is trying to cover too much ground. The wonderful natural dialogue of the group scenes gets interrupted, resulting in a patchy feeling. To cover these seams, songs have been stitched in turning the script’s chiefest liability into the show’s secret weapon. Miche’al and Garcia have beautiful voices and razor-sharp harmonies. If you sit close, the stereo effect will stir your soul.
In these transitions, director Banks makes the most of designer Prudence Jones’ irregularly stacked platform set and angular lights, challenging, reinforcing or setting up what is about to come. Taken as they are, the transitions are a concert in and of themselves.
With the songs set between the heartfelt scenes of wide historical scope, AART’s Gee’s Bend mirrors the quilts for which it is intended to honor: Bold pieces instinctually assembled into an unquestionably satisfying and ultimately comforting creation.