Discovering Gee’s Bend: A Place Within a Play

Gee’s Bend, Alabama is located in Wilcox County and is surrounded on three sides by a dramatic U-turn in the Alabama River. The approximately 700 residents are almost all descendants of the slaves of the original Gee’s Bend plantation.

Boykin, also known as Gee’s Bend, is an African American majority community and census-designated place in a large bend of the Alabama River in Wilcox County, Alabama.

This geographic isolation and unusual stability of community created a unique enclave for the women’s art community: quilting. The history of Gee’s Bend is the story of a tiny place altered by large social changes occurring over the years.

Before the Civil War, Gee’s Bend was primarily a working cotton plantation, first controlled by slave owner Joseph Gee and then his nephews, who sold it to Mark Pettway. After the Civil War, the emancipated slaves took the last name of Pettway, and worked the same land as tenant farmers. In the 1930s the acreage was sold to the federal government, which in turn developed a program to enable them to purchase the land that they already cultivated.

Pettway plantation, April 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

The type of quilt making found in Gee’s Bend is of the African-American style. This style is considered unique among others found elsewhere in the United States. The most obvious reason for this is the overt African influence. The use of symbols, asymmetry, bright colors, and vertical piecing are techniques that hark back to African textile creations of years ago. Many of the symbols found in these quilts have also been traced back to religious symbols native to a multitude of African tribes. So although these quilts signify their personal pasts and hopes for a future, these women still respect the culture from which they originated.

Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the quilters who inspired the play Gee’s Bend. Photo credit internationalfolkart.org.

These quilts were not originally created as pieces of art—whether for wall hangings or theatrical inspiration. In fact, the quilts were made out of necessity. The very culture that these women were raised in taught them that everything had a use.

So when the nights became cold each winter, the women would scrounge what small scraps of fabric they could find and fashion a blanket to put on the beds of their children and themselves. The inspiration for this approach to construction came from the equally as innovative approach to housing insulation—using layers of paper found in newspapers or magazines.

These wonderful pieces of art were simply thought of as creative methods of keeping a family warm until 1966. It was then that these women realized that the magic and beauty of the quilts came more from what went into them rather than what came out.

Flying Geese variation, ca. 1935 by Annie E. Pettway.

It was a common practice in these small communities of quilt makers to “air out” their quilts every spring. For members of the community, this became a time to study other’s methods or designs so that they may have inspiration the next winter. However, in 1966, another set of eyes caught a glimpse of these soon to be masterpieces.

Gee’s Bend Quilt, April 2012, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

Father Francis Walter saw something more than function in these quilts. He saw a passion and a history unique to these people. Walter, a Civil Rights worker, proposed the idea of marketing and selling these quilts to stores in larger cities in the hopes that these women would soon become self-sufficient economically doing what they loved. Working in conjunction with many volunteers, he was able to get the quilts into the Smithsonian Institution. This exposed the work of these women to the world, but also inspired stores such as Sears, Bloomingdales, and Saks Fifth Ave. to sign contracts with them to manufacture and sell their designs.

In 2002, Houston’s noted Museum of Fine Arts held an exhibition of quilts created by over 30 residents of Alabama’s small community of Gee’s Bend. The exhibit, praised by The New York Times and others, brought world-wide attention to the otherwise hidden creative endeavors of the quilters of Gee’s Bend.

“The best of these designs, unusually minimalist and spare, are so eye-poppingly gorgeous that it’s hard to know how to begin to account for them. The results, not incidentally, turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced.” – The New York Times

Art collector William Arnett, working on a history of African-American folk art in 1998, made the discovery when he came across a photograph of Annie Mae Young’s work-clothes quilt draped over a woodpile. He was so impressed by its originality, he set out to find it. Research lead Arnett and his son Matt to Young in Gee’s Bend and then they showed up at her door late one evening.

Young had burned some quilts the week before (smoke from burning cotton drives off mosquitoes), and at first she thought the quilt in the photograph had been among them. But the next day, she found it and offered it to Arnett for free. Arnett, however, insisted on writing her a check for a few thousand dollars for that quilt and several others. Soon the word spread through Gee’s Bend that there was a white man in town paying money for raggedy old quilts.

Work-Clothes Quilt ca. 2002 by Mary Lee Bendolph.

Arnett shared his discovery with Peter Marzio of the Museum of Fine Arts. The attention to the exhibition revived what had been a dying art in Gee’s Bend. In 2006, the Smithsonian magazine reported that some of the quilters, who had given in to age and arthritis, were back quilting again. And many of their children and grandchildren, some of whom had moved away from Gee’s Bend, had taken up quilting themselves.

Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective, Gee’s Bend. Photo credit: “The Future of Gee’s Bend,” Deep South Magazine.

With the help of Arnett and the Tinwood Alliance (a nonprofit organization that he and his four sons formed in 2002), fifty local women founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective in 2003 to market their quilts, some of which had sold for more than $20,000.

The play Gee’s Bend was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project, where it received a staged reading in 2006 and premiered in January 2007. Even though the story is loosely based on the life of Mary Lee Bendolph, the play focuses on the community of Gee’s Bend as well. Like most artists, the women of Gee’s Bend looked to their surroundings to inspire their designs and were influenced by those around them.

Watch as Director Gilbert McCauley discusses discovering Gee’s Bend and the impact it has in telling this story. Woman on Pettway Plantation, Gees Bend, 1937. Photo by Arthur Rothstein.

“The story of Gee’s Bend is tied to Gee’s Bend only; it’s a special place filled with special people who may appear mundane on the surface, but beneath they are as textured as the very quilts they make,” says Rep Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke. “The costumes, the set and the props will reflect not only the people, but also the place of Gee’s Bend both literally and metaphorically.”

Watch as Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke discusses the lessons audiences will take away from this true story. Monica Parks as mother Alice, Nambi E. Kelley as Sadie and Shannon Lamb as sister Nella in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend.

Gee’s Bend opens on The Rep stage January 25 and runs through February 10, 2013, supported and sponsored by The Design Group, Philander Smith College, Arora, Delta Airlines and the Little Rock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The Rep’s production of Gee’s Bend is made possible in part by a grant from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Foundation, a component fund of the Arkansas Community Fund.

Gee’s Bend Weaves Stories Behind Quilts

Monica Parks as Alice, Shannon Lamb as Nella and Nambi E. Kelley as Sadie in Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend. Photography by Cindy Momchilov, Camera Work. © Copyright 2013 Arkansas Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.

Gee’s Bend, written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, follows Sadie Pettway and her family, sister Nella and mother Alice, as they turn to quilting to provide comfort and creative expression to their lives. What begins as a labor of love soon turns into a spiritual and artistic awakening.

Pieced together from discarded clothes and seasoned with laughter and tears, the women sew a patchwork of inventive abstract designs in rich, blazing colors. Stitch by stitch, the stories of these strong women are revealed as their experiences unravel and inspire them to create what the New York Times called “miraculous works of modern art.”

Gee’s Bend opens in 1939, with the beginning of the era of African-American land ownership. The story then advances to 1965, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and the historic visit to Gee’s Bend by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The production concludes in 2002, on the eve of the unveiling of “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas.

“Gee’s Bend has received a great response from audiences across the country. Regardless of age, race or geography, people are able to connect with these women on some level,” Wilder has said about the play. “People are always telling me stories about their experience with an old family quilt, or about the women in their family. There is something universal about the story.”

The quilts that have become iconic art were created as thrifty necessities, pieced together from old clothing and material scraps to provide warmth. According to the Gee’s Bend Quilters Collective website, “The town’s women developed a distinctive, bold and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional American (and African-American) quilts, but with a geometric simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and modern art. The women of Gee’s Bend passed their skills and aesthetic down through at least six generations to the present.”

Those same quilts became a much-needed source of income for the women of Gee’s Bend in the 1960s, when an Episcopal priest helped the women sell their quilts to high-end stores like Bloomingdale’s. In 2002, a national exhibition tour was organized, and in 2007 the legacy of the quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend was complete with the debut of Wilder’s play.

Gee’s Bend was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival’s Southern Writers Project, where it received a staged reading in 2006 and premiered in January 2007. A graduate of the dramatic writing program at New York University, Wilder received the American Theatre Critics Association’s 2008 Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright.

When Wilder interviewed the women of Gee’s Bend, she asked many questions about the women’s personal lives, and which stories she should reveal. Quilter Mary Lee Bendolph reportedly said to her, “Just write it honest.” Wilder promised to do so, saying, “I just hope my love for these women and these stories can be seen in the work.”

Even though the story is loosely based on the life of Bendolph, the play focuses on the community of Gee’s Bend as well. Like most artists, the women of Gee’s Bend looked to their surroundings to inspire their designs and were influenced by those around them.

“Gee’s Bend is the place that allows the play to happen,” says Director Gilbert McCauley. “And our set will be evocative of that…Gee’s Bend was isolated by a river. So this is a story of a woman who has to make a crossing from the known into the unknown, and the only things she has are the pieces of her life, which she turns into quilts.”

“The story of Gee’s Bend is tied to Gee’s Bend only; it’s a special place filled with special people who may appear mundane on the surface, but beneath they are as textured as the very quilts they make,” says Dramaturg Adewunmi Oke. “The costumes, the set and the props will reflect not only the people, but also the place of Gee’s Bend both literally and metaphorically.”

The true story of the women of Gee’s Bend has already touched millions who viewed their stunning work through a national exhibition tour and features on National Public Radio, in Newsweek and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine. “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend” have been exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among others

But McCauley says this is not a play about quilts, but about people, a fact Wilder was careful to point out in her production notes. “While the quilts are the metaphor, the women are the focus,” says McCauley. “The women of Gee’s Bend wrote their stories through their quilts—their blood, sweat, and tears—these quilts hold the fabric of their lives.”

Gee’s Bend opens January 25 and runs through February 10, 2013, supported and sponsored by The Design Group, Philander Smith College, Arora, Delta Airlines and the Little Rock Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

The Rep’s production of Gee’s Bend is made possible in part by a grant from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame Foundation, a component fund of the Arkansas Community Fund.

SMTI Audition Dates Announced for 2013

Cast members from The Rep’s SMTI program perform in Singin’ on a Star, July 2012.

Audition dates for Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s 2013 Summer Musical Theatre Intensive (SMTI) will be held on Friday, March 1 and Saturday March 2 at Arkansas Repertory Theatre, 601 Main Street, Little Rock, Arkansas. 

Callbacks will be held on Sunday, March 3.

Candidates will be asked to prepare a one-minute monologue and 16 bars of a song (an accompanist will be provided). Those auditioning may also be asked to return for an additional movement and callback audition on Sunday, March 3.

Tuition for the program is $575. A limited number of need-based scholarships are available to those who qualify. Applications will be available at the time of audition.

SMTI alum Mary Katelin Ward on getting her start in the program

Appointments will be scheduled between 4:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Friday, March 1 and between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, March 2. Callbacks will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 3. Applicants will be notified by mail of acceptance within three weeks of auditions.

Audition appointments will be scheduled starting January 15, 2013. To schedule an audition appointment, email education@therep.org with your name, age/grade, email, phone number and mailing address, and please include your preferred audition day. Audition appointments will be scheduled by email only.

The Senior SMTI Session (Ages 15 – 23) will be held from July 7 – July 20 with final performances on July 20. The Junior SMTI Session (Ages 10 – 14) will be held from July 21 – August 3 with final performances on August 3.

SMTI alum Zach Graham on his experience in the program

The Summer Musical Theater Intensive, under the direction of Nicole Capri, Rep Resident Director and Director of Education, is an intensive, audition-based theatre training program designed exclusively for motivated young artists who are serious about the arts and musical theatre. For two weeks during the summer, aspiring Young Artists will have the opportunity to work with the SMTI staff that is comprised of professional directors, choreographers, musicians and designers.

Daily rehearsals are structured similarly to a professional summer stock experience and include instruction in musical theatre techniques, multi-media, costume and stage make-up, dance and vocal coaching. Each session involves intensive daily rehearsals culminating in a public workshop performance of a selected musical or musical revue on the Arkansas Repertory Theatre MainStage.

For more information about The Rep’s Summer Musical Theatre Intensive program, visit www.therep.org/learn.