‘Gee’s Bend’ is both heartwarming and historically significant
By Diana Saenger
Every generation and culture has a treasure trove of stories to tell. Most are harrowing, captivating and inspiring. “Gee’s Bend,” North Coast Repertory Theatre’s current production, covers all those in a road trip through the years about a small family in an Alabama town who overcome adversity, but not without heartbreak and passionate ups and downs.
The NCRT design team effectively uses several elements to tell the tales, including a clever set, soulful music, and film clips from different eras that easily transition the decade changes in the play.
The cast is great. Each actor infuses his/her character with optimism as colorful and versatile as the quilts they make. “Gee’s Bend” is as richly heartwarming as it is historically significant.
Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s story revolves around the quilts made from rags by each generation to keep warm. Each quilt becomes a symbolic arc in the story of their lives.
“Gee’s Bend” opens with one of the play’s many rousing gospel songs and one that got the audience clapping to the beat. A side wall in young Sadie’s (Monique Gaffney – “Piano Lesson,” “Mamba’s Daughters”) bare-bones home shows one of the films occasionally used to let the audience know it’s 1845. The history of Gee’s Bend, Alabama (accessible by ferry) reveals this is the year Joseph Gee sold off his plantation and its 101 slaves.
As Sadie sits next to her mother, Alice (Charmen Jackson – “Dreamgirls,” “Sammy”), and sister Nella (Licia Shearer – “Eden,” “Hangin’ On A Mustard Seed”), the lives of the women are defined as they quilt. Nella is chastised because she refuses to learn to quilt; while Sadie reveals her improbable dreams, and her mother attempts to impart a speck of wisdom to her daughters.
In the blink of a change of wallpaper, it’s 1939 and Sadie’s being courted by Macon (Laurence Brown – “The Piano Lesson,” “Fences”) a former slave who is now free and owner of a plot of land. Sadie picks up her stack of quilts and moves into the house Macon built for her.
Life is good until 1965 when Martin Luther King takes a stand, which fires Sadie up to march in the parade in Selma. Macon demands she not go, but Sadie feels she must. The outcome causes dramatic life changes.
“Gee’s Bend” is well directed by Yvette Freeman (TV roles on “ER” and “Working,” Broadway’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” several awards for her role in “Dinah Was”). Freeman wrote and directed “Life and Loves of Dinah Washington,” and the short films “Remember” and “The Blessing Way.”
Gee’s Bend residents were defined by their unshakable faith and the distinctive quilts that reflected their African-American roots in bright colors and symbols. Eventually the quilts were recognized worldwide, displayed at New York’s Whitney Museum in 2002, purchased by major retailers and some put into the Smithsonian Institution.
Accompanying the play is an antique quilt exhibit – many from the 1880s – from the collection of local quilt historian Pat L. Nichols.
If you go
What: “Gee’s Bend”
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. select Wednesdays; 2 p.m. select Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through Nov. 7
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Tickets: $30-$47. (858) 481-1055. www.northcoastrep.org
Two quilt exhibits: Collection of historian Pat L. Nickols on display an hour before curtain, quilts by artist Jane LaFazio in the Spot Light Café during showtimes.
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