‘Gee’s Bend’ opens at Artists’ Ensemble May 11

Jamie Nicole Turner, Jenniel Wright and Dorothy Paige-Turner in Artists’ Ensemble Theater’s production of Gee’s Bend. (Photo by John Cobb)

Staff Report

On the playwright’s first visit to Gee’s Bend, Ala. (pronounced “jeez”), she was greeted with the words, “God has blessed us here in Gee’s Bend.” Those are the opening lines of this award-winning play.

Gee’s Bend, which runs May 11-27 at Rockford’s Artists’ Ensemble Theater, celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.

All through the Depression, family turmoil and the civil rights movement, the women of Gee’s Bend turn to quilting to provide comfort and context to their lives, never dreaming that their quilts would one day hang in museums.

The play spans 63 years in the lives of Sadie Pettway and her older sister, Nella. Performed without intermission, the play opens in 1939 as 15-year-old Sadie bickers with her sister, learns quilting from her mama, and marries her beau.

The play shifts to 1965 when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arrives to speak at the tiny Gee’s Bend church, inspiring Sadie to register to vote.

The final portion of the play takes place in 2002 when Sadie and Nella, now elderly, leave Alabama for the first time in their lives to visit New York, where Sadie’s quilts are on exhibit in the Whitney Museum of Art.

Although the play is fiction, all the events are drawn from real-life accounts. The playwright, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, drove to Gee’s Bend — there is only one road — and literally sat at the feet of the women as they told their stories and admonished her, “Just write it honest.”

The Artists’ Ensemble production features an entirely local cast with Jamie Nicole Turner as Sadie and Dorothy Paige-Turner (no relation) as her older sister, Nella.

Paige-Turner, well known as a popular jazz vocalist, also acts as music director for the production.

Director Richard Raether explained: “The gospel music that is woven throughout the play is crucial to this story. There are a couple of songs that are specifically written into the script; however, early in the planning, Dorothy and I began discussing adding more.”

All of the songs used in the play are traditional gospel songs of the region, many drawn from actual recordings made in Gee’s Bend during the 1930s.

A number of these songs were never written down — the cast had to learn them from the recordings,” Raether said. “Like one of the famous Gee’s Bend quilts, the play is a patchwork of scenes from Sadie’s life, all tied together by this incredible singing.”

Other family members and residents of Gee’s Bend are played by Jenniel Wright, David Causey, Stella L. Adams, Ariana Sanders and Jayla Williams-Craig.

Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Thursday tickets are $19. All other performances are $28, $26 for seniors and $10 for students.

Tickets may be purchased online at www.artistsensemble.org or by calling (815) 904-2277. Artists’ Ensemble is an Equity professional theater performing in residence at Rockford College.

From the May 9-15, 2012, issue

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