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.

Rep’s 12-13 Season to Set Sail in September

“We welcome you to set sail with us in September through a season of exciting contrasts; plays and musicals that demand to live on a stage and that reflect theatrical storytelling at its most dynamic and creative,” says Bob Hupp, Producing Artistic Director at Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

“We’ll celebrate the triumph of the human spirit and reveal incredible art in the ordinary, while also exploring the dark side of the American Dream. We’ll experience epic tales as one young leader strives for redemption and power while another becomes caught up in a dangerous world not of his making. And we’ll laugh and sing along with the warm nostalgia of holidays gone by and a hysterical adult comedy in two completely different but utterly charming musical productions,” says Hupp. “Every season is a journey, but this season is truly an adventure.”

THE 2012-2013 MAINSTAGE SEASON

“From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” William Shakespeare’s Henry V will open The Rep’s season and run September 7 – September 23, 2012.

Directed by Robert Hupp, Henry V is at once an indictment of war and a testament to valor in the face of overwhelming odds as an adventurous young king must grapple with absolute power.

With the death of his father, young King Henry casts off the trappings of youthful misadventures and transforms into a leader of men. With his country wracked by strife, mocked by the French and eager to assert his birthright, Henry launches a rash invasion that culminates in the fateful battle of Agincourt.

Weary and grossly outnumbered, the English face near certain defeat, but Henry’s inspirational leadership turns the tide of war and turns a man into a legend. The power of Henry V lies in its contradictions: Valor and cruelty, greed and generosity, honor and treachery.These contradictions make the play immediately accessible to a modern audience and help bring the characters to vivid life on the stage.

“From his confrontation with the close friends who betray him to his wooing of the French princess, Henry V is such a compelling character,” says Hupp. “A young king, untested, driven by ambition, strives for redemption and power through the cauldron of war and redefines his world in the process.”

Up next is The Rep’s Young Artists’ Production, an annual performance by The Rep’s SMTI (Summer Musical Theatre Intensive) theatre training program October 24 – November 3, 2012. The most talented young artists in the state always deliver some of the most feel good shows of the season!

Conceived and directed by The Rep’s Resident Director and Director of Education Nicole Capri, this year’s show is all about the actor’s journey from stardust to stardom and is titled “Singin’ on a Star.” These young artists will celebrate a rite of passage to the Broadway stage – waiting tables! With song selections from the pop charts and the Great White Way, The Rep’s starving young artists sing about big dreams in the big apple this fall.

“The Rep’s Young Artists have established themselves as a defining characteristic of this theatre. Their enthusiasm and spirit leaps across the footlights and combines with their amazing talent to create unforgettable experiences each season,” says Hupp.

Celebrate the holidays with a musical as fresh as the season’s first snow. You’ll want to snuggle up with the entire family for this funny and heartwarming musical adaptation of the perennially popular Paramount Pictures classic, White Christmas, running November 30 – December 30, 2012 and directed by Nicole Capri.

Following World War II, a pair of song and dance men with romance on their minds follow a duo of beautiful singing sisters en route to their Christmas show at a Vermont inn. Once they arrive, they realize the inn is owned by their old Army commander and a lack of seasonal precipitation has the inn facing hard times.

Through delightful plot twists and a dazzling Irving Berlin score that includes “Blue Skies,” “I Love a Piano,” “Happy Days,” “It’s Cold Outside” and of course, “White Christmas,” the fellows launch an all-out campaign to save the inn and win the sisters’ hearts.

White Christmas is the perfect holiday musical,” says Hupp. “It’s a trip down memory lane for those who remember the music and the movie, and it’s sure to inspire new appreciation for the timeless songs of Irving Berlin – one of America’s greatest composers – for younger generations.”

The new year brings another new production to The Rep stage with Gee’s Bend, written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder and directed by Gilbert McCauley, January 25 – February 10, 2013.

Confronting segregation, the Civil Rights Movement and family turmoil, Gee’s Bend follows the life of Sadie Pettway and the women in her sewing circle, who turn to quilting to provide comfort and creative expression to their lives.

What begins as a labor of love and necessity soon turns into a spiritual and artistic awakening. Pieced 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 would call “miraculous works of modern art.”

Gee’s Bend celebrates the triumph of the human spirit and reveals art in the ordinary,” says Hupp. “The unique story of the quilts of Gee’s Bend is an inspiration and we are proud to tell this uplifting story on The Rep stage.”

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 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.

Just in time for spring, The Rep will set sail on the adventure of a lifetime: the world premiere of Treasure Island, A New Musical, March 8 – March 31, 2013.

Through the eyes of its young hero, Treasure Island, A New Musical reexamines the essence of heroism, the journey to manhood and the strength of the human spirit.

Directed and choreographed by Brett Smock, with book by Brett Smock and Carla Vitale and music and lyrics by Corinne Aquilina, this musical offers a fresh, new take on the famous story by Robert Louis Stevenson, set to a thrilling musical score and full of action, adventure and excitement as treasure hungry pirates and mutinous crew battle to discover the coveted Isle of Treasure.

Bored by his mundane life at the Admiral Benbow Inn, and entranced by the mysterious Captain Billy Bones and his wild seafaring tales, young Jim Hawkins yearns for a life of adventure. His wish is soon granted as members of the infamous Captain Flint crew pursue Bones and his hidden treasure map.

When Bones dies in a struggle for the map, Jim narrowly escapes with his life and Bones’ prize possession. With a sturdy crew in place led by Long John Silver, and with Jim under the protection of a doctor, a nobleman and a stoic ship’s captain, they set sail in search of their fortunes. As greed escalates, mutiny threatens and loyalties are forever broken.

Armed and hungry for the treasure, the camps arrive where “X” marks the spot. Will they find the treasure? And if so, at what cost? Rep audiences will be the first to find out!

“This thrilling tale introduces us to a young boy caught up in a world not of his making, a world of greed and betrayal,” says Hupp. “With a fresh new take on the famous story that defined the idea of adventure, this production shines anew as we all embark on the journey.”

Never has the pursuit of the American dream been more relevant than it is today. Up next in the season is Death of a Salesman, directed by Robert Hupp, and running April 26 – May 12, 2013.

“Attention must be paid,” wrote the legendary Arthur Miller, the playwright who brought us The Crucible, All My Sons and A View from the Bridge, in this classic tragedy first published in 1949. Death of a Salesman went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the New York Critics’ Circle Best Play award.

Some critics claim Death of a Salesman is the greatest American play. Rep audiences have the opportunity to decide for themselves as Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama explodes on The Rep stage for the first time.

Traveling salesman Willy Loman is at the end of the road. Broke and desperate, with his world closing in around him, Willy escapes into a world where the past is more real, and more hopeful, than the present. His advice to his sons “Be well liked and you will never want,” falls flat in the face of their failure. His loving wife watches helplessly as he drifts further off the road.

Unable to gain traction in a world that has passed him by, Willy’s life spirals out of control on the downside of the dream. The haunting poetic realism of Miller’s milestone play captures the essence of an American tragedy that is as powerful and relevant today as it was when it was written over 50 years ago.

“Miller’s language transports us into a world where we are all reflected, and where we ignore his desperate warning at our own peril,” says Hupp. “Death of a Salesman gives Rep audiences the opportunity to witness American playwriting at its zenith.”

Closing out The Rep’s season is Avenue Q, one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history and Winner of the Tony “Triple Crown” for Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. On stage June 7 – June 30, 2013 and directed by Robbie Harper, Avenue Q is part flesh, part felt and packed with heart.

More South Park than Sesame Street and not appropriate for children, Avenue Q is a raunchy, laugh-out-loud puppet musical that tells the timeless story of a recent college grad named Princeton who moves into a shabby New York apartment all the way out on Avenue Q. There, he meets Kate (the girl next door), Rod (the Republican), Trekkie (the Internet sexpert), Lucy the Slut (need we say more?) and other colorful types who help Princeton finally discover his purpose in life.

Avenue Q was co-created by Robert Lopez, who also co-created the recent Broadway hit The Book of Mormon with Comedy Central’s “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and received Tony Awards for both works. Named “Best on Broadway” in 2003, critics universally called Avenue Q “the most fun onstage this year!”

“We’ve had so many requests for this musical and finally, after years of trying, we have the rights to produce Avenue Q on our stage,” says Hupp. “It’s truly one of the funniest musicals I’ve ever seen.”

SEASON SUBSCRIPTIONS

Season Subscriptions are on sale now and start at $180. Call The Rep’s Box Office at (501) 378-0405 or subscribe online here. Single ticket sales open to the public in August.