Geneva Fields, left, and Valerie Williams perform 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 PLAY
WHAT: A 2007 play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder about a family based on the real town of Gee’s Bend, Ala.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Feb. 2-4, 9-11; 2:30 p.m. Feb. 5, 12
WHERE: Theatre Albany, 514 Pine Ave.
CAST: Valerie Williams, Patricia Randall-Alford, Geneva Fields and T.A. Gatling.
OFF STAGE: Mark Costello, director; Mary Lou Beasley, stage manager; Steve Felmet, set designer.
CONTACT: (229) 439-7141.
ALBANY — From the everyday struggle to survive in a small farming community deep in Alabama to fine arts accolades in a New York City museum, the life story of a family strong in its faith will be stitched together with drama, humor and song in the Theatre Albany production of “Gee’s Bend,” which opens Thursday night.
“It is a moving, lyric and poignant play,” Director Mark Costello said, “a testament to the strength and perseverance of these ladies through difficult times.”
The play by Elizabeth Gregory Wilder premiered in 2007 and tells the story of the Pettway family, focusing on Sadie, portrayed by newcomer Valerie Williams, who ages from 15 to 78 during the course of the production. It’s set in Boykin, Ala. — also known as Gee’s Bend — a small, primarily African-American farming area formed by a horseshoe bend of the Alabama River. The aspect of the community that captured the world’s attention in the early 2000s was the intricate quilt work once used to help generate cash for members of the community that became acclaimed as fine art and exhibited at museums including the Smithsonian.
“These people lived in that little section. It was a farming community,” Costello said. “Somewhere along the line, someone saw their quilts and started buying them up and putting them on museum walls.
“They were kind of baffled. This was just something they’d done their whole life. It’s part of their history.”
Costello said “Gee’s Bend” was selected both for its haunting beauty and to celebrate Black History Month.
“I’m always looking for something I like that’s poetic, moving,” he said. “We always do a serious play in our season and this slot was open. I’ve done some similar to this in this time slot and it’s always a good time to do something like that for our community.”
“Gee’s Bend” opens in 1939, a time when African-American farmers were starting to buy the land that they had worked first as slaves and then as sharecroppers. Sadie is a 15-year-old girl in the opening act, which includes her mother, Alice (played by Patricia Randall-Alford), sister, Nella (Geneva Fields), and husband, Macon (T.A. Gatling). While the play is a drama, Costello says Nella provides humor throughout the production. “She’s always got an opinion about something,” he said, noting she never gets married and never learns to cook or quilt. “She’s always saying something that hilarious.”
But the pivotal character is Sadie.
“She’s the one who’s really the pulse of the whole play, who goes through all this stuff and is the catalyst for everything that goes on through the show,” he said.
Williams, who is making her Theatre Albany debut, says she sees the message as one of faith.
The story, Williams said, “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.”
The opening act “kind of sets the background, the rural background,” Costello said. “This guy she (Sadie) marries has all these plans. He’s going to grow cotton here, and he’s going to grow corn. He’s going to make a life for her and build a house, which he does. He has a speech about when he was a little boy, that the man they used to work for on the plantation; his son came in riding on a horse one day and he threw pennies a the workers and said, ‘Here, chicky, chicky, chicky. Here, chicky, chicky, chicky.’ And he said, ‘I just stood there.’ He talks about the first time he stood up and he was going to be his own man, and how humiliating that was. He wasn’t going to let that happen in his life.”
From there, the play moves to 1965 and the civil rights movement — and resulting marital tension between Sadie and Macon.
“She (Sadie) and her sister go to a church and see Martin Luther King and then there’s a scene where she goes and he’s drinking out of a white water fountain,” Costello said. “Her husband doesn’t like any of this. He winds up beating her. It shows how she’s trying to better herself and to learn more. She says she wants to make a better life. There’s a strain it puts on their marriage. He ends up passing away. He literally works himself to death trying to make the farm work.”
The 1960s was also when an offshoot of the civil rights movement, the Freedom Quilting Bee, was launched. The quilts were produced and sold to bring some much-needed cash into the predominately African-American community.
The final act takes the now elderly Sadie and Nella, along with Sadie’s daughter Asia (also played by Randall-Alford) to 2002 and a New York museum, where they see the quilts that Sadie, her mother and other people they knew created. The real quilts were part of a fine art exhibition that was shown at seven major museums, including the Whitney in New York and the Smithsonian.
“She has a beautiful speech,” Costello said. “’That’s us up there,’ she says. ‘That’s our history. That’s our sweat. That’s our blood. That’s our mama.’ The quilts represent their whole life, what they’ve gone through because so much has happened around that. It’s a beautiful little piece.”
The play also includes two of the actors singing gospel a cappella. “It’s used as a connector leading into scenes,” Costello said. “It just sort of sets the mood for the transitions.”
“Gee’s Bend” opens Thursday at the theater, 514 Pine Ave. Stage manager is Mary Lou Beasley. Set designer is Steve Felmet.
Curtain is at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and Feb. 9-11, and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 5 and 12. Tickets are $20, adults; $15, seniors; $10, students. Reservations number is (229) 439-7141. Box office is open noon-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Friday; noon-2 p.m. Saturdays and one hour before curtain.