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Gee’s Bend
by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 8th, 2014

Marty Casey, Jacqueline Thompson, Alicia Reve Like Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Marty Casey, Jacqueline Thompson, Alicia Reve Like
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Upon entering the theatre for Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend, the first thing I noticed was an enormous quilt.  Serving as the backdrop for the play’s set, this quilt represents many years and many hours devoted to quilting in the African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, as well as the importance of quilting to every aspect of life for the women of that community.  Throughout the middle decades of the 20th Century and the great changes that took place in society, quilting was the common thread that bound these women together, and it serves as a unifying theme for this fascinating story of one family’s life in this small but significant corner of Alabama. At Mustard Seed, this story is presented with much warmth and great care

Inspired by the story of the real community of Gee’s Bend, the play’s action begins in 1939 and follows the gentle but determined young Sadie Pettway (Jacqueline Thompson) and her feisty dreamer sister Nella  (Alicia Reve Like), from their teenage years living in a small house with their devout, loving and principled mother Alice (Marty Casey), who teaches Sadie the art of quilting and the importance of hospitality.  It continues as Sadie marries a young farmer named Macon (Reginald Pierre) and moves into a new home to start a family, and then skips ahead to the 1960’s, as Dr. Martin Luther King brings the Civil Rights movement to their county and Sadie is inspired to follow his cause despite the opposition of her husband and others.  Through all the conflicts and struggles, Sadie carries on her mother’s tradition of quilting until finally, in the year 2000, the Gee’s Bend Quilts have gained national attention and the now elderly Sadie and Nella, accompanied by Sadie’s adult daughter Asia (also Casey) prepare to attend an exhibit at a museum celebrating the art to which Sadie has devoted much of her life.

It’s a story of humor, romance, drama, and great emotion, punctuated by some excellently sung traditional songs to augment the events. There is a lot happening here for a relatively short play (80 minutes with no intermission), and it is very efficiently staged by director Deanna Jent, telling a coherent, educational and heartwarming story aided by Kyra Bishop’s set, Meg Brinkley’s props and Jane Sullivan’s costumes, which effectively evoke the time and place.   There are also many, many quilts, some in progress and some finished of varying color schemes and patterns.  The quilts themselves almost seem to be characters in the play, as important as they are in moving the story along, serving as a means of bonding between generations, an outlet for creativity, a source of warmth and comfort through cold and illness, and even a source of income in leaner times.  This production, appropriately, never lets the audience forget about the quilts, from the first moments of the play, as mother and daughter work on their quilts,  to the last,  as the women reflect on what quilting meant to them and share their legacy with Sadie’s own daughter as well as the world outside of Gee’s Bend.

As important as the quilts are, though, this production is driven mainly by a very strong cast.  As Sadie, Thompson displays warmth, humor and strength, and a great deal of courage. Like is a joy as the spunky, sometimes snarky Nella, and she and Thompson share a believable sisterly chemistry in their scenes together, and both actresses convincingly play the later scenes as elderly women. Their early scenes with Casey as their mother are another highlight of the show, with a great deal of energy and humor.  Casey does an excellent job playing two distinct characters as both the tough, wise Alice and the concerned daughter Asia, and Pierre is strong as Macon, showing great chemistry with Thompson both in their earlier moments as a young couple in love and their later, more tense and conflict-fraught exchanges.

This play introduced me to the story of the Gee’s Bend quilts, and the very personal bonds within this community and its role in the Civil Rights movement and in the world of folk art. It’s a play about relationships, of women with their families, their community and their art. It’s a story well worth telling, and Mustard Seed has told it in a simple and memorable style.

Reginald Pierre, Jacqueline Thompson Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Reginald Pierre, Jacqueline Thompson
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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