Valerie Williams performs a scene during rehearsal of Theatre Albany's production of "Gee's Bend" by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
GEE’S BEND THE TOWN
-- Town’s official name is Boykin, Ala.
-- Gee’s Bend was named for slaveowner Joseph Gee, who settled the area in 1816, moving from Halifax County, N.C.
-- Population in 2010 was 275.
-- Town is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.
-- In the mid-1960s, was part of the Freedom Quilting Bee, a part of the civil rights movement.
-- Local officials ended ferry service for the town in 1962, forcing residents to drive an hour to get to the county seat; it resumed in 2006.
-- Exhibit of quilt artwork opened in 2002 at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; museums on the exhibition tour included the Smithsonian and the Whitney Museum in New York.
Taking the stage for the first time with Theatre Albany this week is Valerie Williams, interim director of business and industries and the economic development department at Albany Technical College. Williams, who moved to Albany a little over a year ago, is tackling a difficult role as the lead in “Gee’s Bend.” Her character, Sadie, ages 63 years over the course of the play. But in an interview last week with Herald Editor Jim Hendricks, Williams said anything is possible — as long as you have faith.
AH: Have you been in Theatre Albany productions before?
VW: No, I moved to Albany. I’ve been here a year and two months. This is actually my debut.
AH: Is this your first time on stage?
VW: I portrayed a character back in college. I traveled with Chase Manhattan Production and they did a setting of Texas Trailblazers — Black Texas Trailblazers. I was the wife of one of the trailblazers. And that’s it. I’ve danced for years. I started dancing when I was 12. But as far as theater, no. My family always said, you’re very dramatic.
AH: Well, maybe that’ll pay off.
VW: Right. Exactly.
AH: So, what got you to take a stab at the footlights?
VW: The funny thing is I just went to the (Theatre Albany) website because I wanted to find a play for my husband and me to attend and it just popped up on the screen — “Gee’s Bend.” And it said auditions, told what they were looking for and everything, and I thought, you know, I’ve always wanted to try it so I’m just going to try. I came here and all these ladies were here and I was like, oh, OK. I just said I’m going to get up there and do what I feel, and that’s what I did. And here I am.
AH: The part you play is the pivotal character. She’s the glue that holds the play together. Any butterflies over being the leading lady on the production?
VW: Not really. My faith is strong like Sadie’s — her name is Sadie Pettway. She has a very strong faith in God and so do I. No matter what obstacles stood in her way, she always had faith in him. And so I pulled from that. Throughout life, obstacles come your way. That’s what I’ve been pulling from. Her character went through a turbulent time in history, but I think regardless of what period of time you live through you’re always going to have those obstacles, and as long as you keep the faith you can make it through. I have those days when I get really nervous, like what have I gotten myself into? But for the most part, I find comfort when I get here in the character that I’m playing because she is so strong.
AH: You were looking for a play for you and your husband to attend. Have you always frequented theater?
VW: I have always been drawn to musicals, to anything on stage. “Hairspray” I love ... anything on the stage I’ve always loved. Musicals, I’ve sung along with them, can;t carry a note to save my life, but I’ve sung along with them my whole life, going as far back as “Grease,” “Lion King” ... all of that. I haven’t always been able to get to the theater like I’d like to, but when the opportunity has presented itself, I was definitely there.
AH: You said you came to Albany about 14 months ago?
VW: Yes ... I moved here from Seattle, Washington.
AH: You went from corner to corner across the country, almost.
VW: I’m originally from Louisiana, went to college in Texas and moved here. My husband is from Albany and so that’s why I’m here.
AH: So, is the coffee really that much better in Seattle?
VW: Oh, it’s great. It really is. Starbucks does it up really well. But then, you guys have the sweet potato pie here, you have sweet tea. You know, you have the fried — fried everything!
AH: Do you work here in town?
VW: I work at Albany Technical College. I am the interim director of business and industries and the economic development department.
AH: So you’re used to getting up in front of people.
VW: Yes, and from my previous jobs I did a lot of corporate training, not only domestic but also international. So I’m used to it ... just not in a setting where I had to remember lines and everything; I could just free flow based on a training guide.
AH: If you have a good experience with this one, do you think you’ll be back?
VW: I would love to if Mark (Costello, theater director) would have me back. I’m really enjoying it. It’s something different. I’ve always heard people say that they get into character. It didn’t really hit home with me until now. I’ve been a cheer coach for 10 years. I would always tell my girls that Beyonce, who’s well known, has an alter ego named Sasha. So whenever my cheerleaders would perform in competitions, I would tell them to find your alter ego. So here I am now, finding my alter ego to go on stage, do this, make it happen. You’re working nine to five, so you’re working long hours and then you come here at night. But when I walk up on that stage, I can feel something different. It is a great experience. And I pray that Mark would allow me to do some other parts.
AH: Have you seen this play before, or have you seen any versions of it?
VW: I’ve seen small clips from the web. I did research. Once he told me I had the part, I went out and did tons of research, not just on Gee’s Bend, but also on the individuals who live in Gee’s Bend, what’s happening there now versus what has happened in the past. A lot of research that I had to do.
AH: Your character is going to age a good bit in the play. How do you handle that?
VW: Fifteen to 41 to 78.
AH: I would think that would be a daunting task for a first time up on stage.
VW: The interesting thing is because I was a cheer coach, I know the 15 year olds and how they are, so I pull from that, from the girls that I’ve coached in the past. The 41 year old was easy because that’s me. The 78 year old, I pull that from the ladies when I grew up. I grew up with my grandmother; she raised me. She would go and feed different elderly people throughout the community. And at church. We went to a shotgun church, where from the front door to the back door you could see everything. So, I pulled from those old ladies. Then from the research, there are clips of Pettway women who are 70, 80. So I pull from them. That has helped me a lot.
AH: Anything else you’d like to add?
VW: Just that the story is very powerful and I hope we’re able to convey the message that the writer was trying to get across to the community and everyone because it’s about faith. As long as you stand on that, you’ll be OK regardless of what your faith is. It doesn’t matter as far as your religion as long as you have that faith. And whatever greater being you believe in — for me it’s God, for someone else it may be Allah or whoever the case may be — as long as they stand on that faith. And hopefully that’s what people who see this play will see, that it’s about faith and believing in yourself.