There are some magnificent visuals on display at Hartford Stage now through February 14, but unfortunately the vast majority of them are not on stage.
Instead, they hang from the ceiling of the upper lobby or are on display on walls throughout the theater. Some of the more stirring, creative and dramatic quilts created by the Freedom Quilting Bee, a quilting consortium located in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are on loan throughout the run of the current production at the theater, supplemented by some interesting quilts created by talented local artists, including Ed Johnetta Miller.
These quilts are the real heart and soul of the African-American women depicted in “Gee’s Bend,” Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play, which, while containing some stunning visual imagery of its own, turns out to be a mere sliver of a play, frequently as shallow as the winding trough of water that curves its way through Scott Bradley’s interesting set, representing the river that both shuts off and protects the tiny town of Gee’s Bend from the realities of the outside world.
The quilts from the real Gee’s Bend that are on display are colorful, dramatic, disturbing and quite accomplished. If only Wilder’s play were completely so. Although she adheres closely to the actual events of Gee’s Bend, she creates a fictional family (an elderly mother, two daughters, and the man one of the them eventually marries) to represent the struggles of the Pettway family, the extended family descended from slaves and apparently also their owners who were also named Pettway, who became the world-renown quilters. As a result, the play is neither satisfying as a history or a family saga. The family’s story is told amidst the major historic events that contributed to the growth and development of the quilters’ circle, unfortunately sacrificing some of the more personal, emotionally-wrenching events of the family’s own life, which would have added a stronger sense of intimacy and identification with the characters.
Miche Braden, Kimberly Gregory & Tamela Aldridge (T. Charles Erickson)
The play abruptly jumps for no apparent reason–other than to catch some key historic events–from 1939 to 1965 to 2002, closing apparently in 2006. The audience winds up seeing the family’s reaction to major events or to hearing stories about the potent events, rather than experiencing them fully on stage. For example, when one of the two sisters joins the civil rights movement in Alabama with Dr. Martin Luther King, we see only the aftermath of her experience, coming home injured and exhausted from tear gas and police beatings. What the play chooses to focus on is a fierce argument between husband and wife over the husband’s objection to his wife’s participation and his brutal, cruel efforts to keep her home and then later punish and humiliate her for her actions. Besides the fact that these characters’ motivation has been inadequately foreshadowed, this sequence overemphasizes the personal over the communal story of the quilting consortium.
Similarly, the long march of the slaves from a plantation in North Carolina to their owner’s new home in Gee’s Bend in 1846 and the utter destruction of Gee’s Bend settlement by the next owner’s widow is described in a short monologue, that, except for a brief story about pig’s blood, fails to convey the real horror of the slaves’ experience. In addition, some of the key history is speedily glossed over, such as the reasons officials shut down the ferry service in 1965 that provided Gee’s Bend’s lifeline to the world, which was to prevent folks from crossing the river to join in Dr. Martin Luther Kings’ efforts on the other side. There are also some annoying plot holes, as it is never clear if the sisters share the same household as they grow older or just visit their neighboring homes for extended periods.
Tamela Aldridge & Kimberly Gregory (T. Charles Erickson)
The biggest disappointment in the production is not experiencing the awesome splendor of the quilts on stage. Yes, we see a few quilts used as blankets or folded up ready for sale, but we never see them fully unfurled, although there are certainly opportunities to do so throughout the play, especially when the quilts are the focus of a major (unnamed in the play) museum exhibit. Bradley’s set does utilize a number of hanging backdrops assembled of parts of various quilts, but they merely create an ultimately inadequate suggestion of the real power and glory of the remarkable achievements of the women of this Alabama community. Nor do we get a chance to see the members of the quilters’ cooperative together sewing and patching. One would expect that this collaborative social setting would provide ample room for drama and action. After all, this was where many of the women in Gee’s Bend became empowered and obtained extensive self-satisfaction and self-esteem from their communal efforts.
Instead we are treated to the rather uninvolving domestic life of the sisters over nearly 70 years. One is left with the question, what is the playwright trying to do with “Gee’s Bend?” Is it a history or a family drama? The history is obviously so important (and so unclear in the actual play) that the Hartford Stage program has found it necessary to provide two versions: one in prose by production dramaturg Liane Thompson, followed by a timeline depicting essentially the same events. One would have appreciated more information on the contemporary Pettways themselves and how the quilting cooperative is functioning today, not to mention an artistic evaluation of the styles and fabrics used by the group.
There are, however, some genuinely stunning attempts at visual excitement, specifically the blue, green and yellow patterned floor where rectangular spots of light, designed by Lap Chi Chu, serve to create gently subtle reminders of the quilts that have become the life work of these women. As part of its role as the river, the trough offers an unexpected, yet glorious vision of one of the character’s full-immersion baptism, her white gown clinging exquisitely to the exuberant woman’s body.
The cast is certainly able to respond effectively to whatever the play requires, although at times it becomes initially difficult to tell the two sisters apart during the abrupt time changes, especially as they suddenly appear in their elder years. In those situations, the playwright does not immediately offer helpful cues in the text, so it takes a few moments at each jump to figure out who is who, especially when one is not aware that a major character has died offstage during one interim. Kimberly Herbert Gregory and Tamela Aldridge are fine as the two sisters, aging from their early teens to their 80’s and above by the end of the play. It is actually in the latter part of the play that they really come into their own, as they bicker back and forth using a shorthand language developed over the years. The play focuses slightly more on Sadie who is depicted as the more responsible. level-headed sister, although it is she and not her more rambunctious and rebellious sister Nella who joins the civil rights movement. It would have helped to explore why this other sister chose not to get involved, since earlier scenes would make her seem the more likely to do so.
Miche Bragden plays their mother in a rather traditional way, but really demonstrates her ability later as Sadie’s daughter, whose comes to symbolize upward mobility and the necessity of leaving the past behind. Teagle F. Bougere has the rather thankless role of Macon, with his early overconfident swagger tempered by his later overprotectiveness and overcontrol of his wife, Sadie. The entire ugly truth of his relationship with his wife is much too slowly revealed, leaving Sadie’s sigh of relief at a key point, welcome as it is, seem rather rushed based on how little we really knew up until that point.
Hana S. Sharif, the 2009-2010 Aetna New Voices Fellow at Hartford Stage, assures steady and speedy movement, in spite of numerous set changes that threaten to impede the momentum. The spirituals that connect some of the early scenes are discarded by the middle of the first act, however, and the second act banter between Sadie and Nella resembles the type of dialogue in Emily Mann’s “Having Our Say,” a Broadway hit some 15 years ago. It is clear, however, that Sharif has gotten the actors to respond positively to the material and that for much of the time they are enjoying and respecting the character they play.
But ultimately, Sadie and Nella are inadequate archetypes of the women of Gee’s Bend for their story really lacks a compelling dramatic through-line. One yearns for the real stories of the these remarkable women–which can be found not only in some of the Gee’s Bend quilts on display but in a marvelous compendium called The Quilts of Gee’s Bend on sale in the theater lobby. If this play spurs interest in this little-known but important bit of history, then playwright Wilder has indeed done a public service.
For more info: Contact Hartford Stage at 860.527.5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.