The women of Gee's Bend are noted for the imaginative designs they create through quilts they sew. Sadie (Kimberly Hebert Gregory) is the featured quilt maker. During early moments, one sequence of the show jumps a bit to the next, even if theme and story line are compelling. A stirring section set in 1965 focuses on voting rights. Sadie is determined to register and vote while her husband Macon (Teagle F. Bougere) is, to understate the situation, oppositional. Sadie participates when Martin Luther King, Jr. organizes a march in Selma. She is beaten but she will courageously drink from a fountain designated for whites only.
The play is very much about sisters. Nella (Tamela Aldridge) does not sew but she can certainly sing. Nella does not find a man to her liking as she's particular and demanding. Nella and Sadie may agree or disagree but the bond between them remains strong and permanent.
Scott Bradley's design for Gee's Bend is lovely, most evocative and actually proactive. There's a winding stream, filled with water, which parts the performance space. The stage itself is decorated with quilt-like sections painted on the woodwork. Finally, many drops (with quilt motif) shift and move as one scene yields to the next.
Vocal music (both pre-recorded and a cappella) shapes moments and enhances the performance. Linda Cho's outfit choices, too, are most appropriate.
The quilting visuals are eye-catching and important. It seems odd, however, that one never learns anything about either quilting design or technique. Perhaps this is implied and, true enough, it is impossible to explore everything during the course of a two-hour play. I felt moved by the Civil Rights sequences and wished (as a non-quilter) for further explanation of the fabric.
The quality of performance, individually and collectively, is impressive throughout. Gregory, as Sadie, is driven and motivated. Sadie is introduced as a younger person who becomes Macon's wife and must deal with a difficult marriage. Sadie later appears as an elderly woman. Aldridge, playing her close sibling Nella, mixes affection with her own powerful personality. Miche Braden is musical director for the production. She also has two on-stage roles. Braden plays Alice, mother of Sadie and Nella; and Asia, who is Sadie's daughter. Teagle F. Bougere embodies Macon with a fitting, rough attitude.
What is most affecting and enduring about Gee's Bend is the feel the cast has for the play. Each actor is credible and convincing. Together, they are warm and able to navigate with grace, compassion and sensitivity. The second act is, for the most part, more enthralling.
Gee's Bend is a play which transports viewers to another place: a locale near a river in southern Alabama. Wilder's script covers many, many years and it is evocative of different eras. Ultimately, it is about people of heart whose pervasive spirit is undeniable.
Gee's Bend continues at Hartford Stage through February 14th. For tickets, call the box office at (860) 527-5151 or visit hartfordstage.org.
- Fred Sokol