Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The playwright spent time with the women who still live and quilt in Gee's Bend, taking in their determined spirits, their sometimes difficult lives of raising and picking cotton, and the emotional bonds that sustain them. She distills her observations into the women of a single family: Sadie (Roz White), who loves to read and learns to quilt from her mother Alice (Duyen Washington); Sadie's sister Nella (Margo Moorer), who doesn't care about quilting or marriage and takes each day as it comes; and, eventually, Sadie's daughter Asia (Washington). The one man in the picture is Macon (Anthony Manough), who loves Sadie but over the years becomes frustrated and violent toward her.
The play consists of snapshots from three years in the history of Gee's Bend: 1939, after the federal government allowed the former sharecroppers to purchase their land; 1965, when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King spoke there before the civil rights march to Selma; and 2002, when many of the women's quilts were exhibited at the Whitney Museum in New York City. One problem is that the larger contextthe founding of Gee's Bend as a plantation in the early 1800s; the subsequent owners of the property and the African-American residents remaining on the land they had worked as slaves; the isolation that resulted in the 1960s when local authorities, angry over the residents' political activism, shut down the ferry service that connected the town with the rest of Alabamagets parceled out in expository speeches.
What makes the production soar is the way the people of Gee's Bend express themselves through gospel singing to raise the spirit in good times and soothe anger and despair. The performers have a deep understanding of this tradition, singing a cappella except for Greg Holloway's understated support with a variety of percussion instruments.
Betsy Muller's surprisingly intricate scenic design creates numerous interior and exterior settings with a few sliding doors, some platforms, and a floor painted in washes of color that echo the designs of the Gee's Bend quilts.