By Edith McCauley
Gee’s Bend, an isolated community in Wilcox County, Alabama, became the home of slaves brought there in the 1840s by Joseph Gee. Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder has written their history based on extensive interviews with their descendants.
The community could only be reached by ferry, and thus remained very much like it began. It is the tale of three generations of women caring for their families and using scraps of material to create quilts that warmed their loved ones.
In Rockford’s Artists’ Ensemble Theater’s production, Jenniel Wright is Alice, remembering the earliest times from the stories of her grandmother’s days as a slave. As the play begins, daughters Nella (Dorothy Paige-Turner) and Sadie (Jaimie Nicole Turner) are teen-agers living in the ramshackle home much like that of the early slave quarters. Alice is a quilter, and Sadie has acquired her skills. Nella can’t be bothered. David Causey is Macon, a local farmer determined to marry Sadie, and so the story begins.
Marriage and children is the only future for young women of the community, and so Sadie’s fate is decided. It is 1939, and with the Depression, the former slaves have been given the opportunity to buy their land, and better times begin. By 1965, the Civil Rights movement has begun, and Sadie becomes an advocate for voting rights, suffering with others the violence of white racists.
An opportunity arises for these brave women when an Atlanta collector, William Arnett, discovers their quilts. He sees their artistic value, when formerly quilts had been viewed only as utilitarian. By the early 2000s, their value has skyrocketed, and the work of the women of Gee’s Bend is displayed in the New York museums.
Richard Raether’s interpretation of the play incorporates a musical ensemble: Stella L. Adams, Ariana Sanders, and Jayla Williams-Craig with Dorothy Paige-Turner as musical director, sing the music that so well represents the African-based songs of the Gullah people who evolved into the spirituals of Thomas Dorsey and others.
The actors are exceptional. They become the story. Genny Bonavia’s costumes, make-up and hairstyles make the aging process completely realistic, and by the end of the play, Paige-Turner and Jaimie Turner are the tottering old women so familiar to us all.
Do see this exceptional work at Rockford College’s Cheek Theatre, one of Artists’ Ensemble’s best. Playing through May 27, tickets are available by calling (815) 904-2277. Tickets are also available for next season.
From the May 16-22, 2012, issue