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.