Gee's Bend

[This review appeared online in Variety on March 31, and will appear in print the week of April 6th.]

Look up quilting and regardless of your source, you're likely to find a reference to Gee's Bend, a geographically isolated water-bound peninsula on the Alabama River. It's home to a unique community of former African-American slaves who produce some of the most stunning quilt patterns on the planet, which serve as vibrant metaphors for their moving story.

Stephanie Berry as Alice Pettway
Stephanie Berry
as Alice Pettway
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
Heralded emerging scribe (recipient of the American Theatre Critics Association's Osborn Award for emerging playwright, awarded at the Humana Festival last week), Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder weaves an equally impressive tapestry, capturing the history and daily life of these inspirational souls while threading the local melodious dialect, spiritual conviction, and artistic flare through the fabric of one family's story. Kent Gash helms a holographic design that seamlessly unites the river, the land, the flora, and the fauna with character, scenery, costume, lighting, and sound.

(Left to right) Nikki E. Walker as Sadie Pettway and Daphne Gaines as Nella Pettway
(L to R) Nikki E. Walker as Sadie Pettway
and Daphne Gaines as Nella Pettway
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro

Over a hundred years after their ancestors were first brought to this backwater to work the plantation, the Pettways, mama Alice and daughters Nella and Sadie, eke out a simple life that's rich in love and tradition. Alice wants the best for her girls, trying to teach them to read and write and make quilts. Nella and Sadie may be two peas from the same pod, they're as different as navy beans and black-eyed peas when it comes to listening to mama.

(Left to right) Daphne Gaines as Nella Pettway and Nikki E. Walker as Sadie Pettway
(L to R) Daphne Gaines
as Nella Pettway
and Nikki E. Walker
as Sadie Pettway
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
Nella dreams of moving to Birmingham, marrying a rich man, and settling down to a life of leisure; she never learns to read, write, or quilt. Sadie has no such issues, working hard to educate herself and keep the quilting tradition alive. Alice struggles with both girls, combating Nella's obstinacy and Sadie's pliability, but it's Sadie that unites tradition with change, joining Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement and having her quilts exhibited at museums across the country, including the Whitney.

The ensemble morphs itself across 61-years of family history—with an array of physical and vocal techniques and lightning quick costume changes—as gracefully as the script nurtures Gee's Bend's rich history and culture.

Eric Ware as Macon Pettway
Eric Ware as Macon Pettway
Photo credit: Terry Shapiro
Stephanie Berry elegantly bookends the generational arc with a strong, compassionate Alice and, later, as her thoughtful and savvy granddaughter, Asia. Nikki E. Walker's Sadie reveals a big heart as a young bride, a committed social activist, visual artist, and family caretaker. Daphne Gaines makes the most of Wilder's comedic zingers and transports us to another world with her soul-stirring renditions of traditional spirituals, including a gut-wrenching take on "Somebody's Knocking At Your Door" in counterpoint to the dramatic climax. Eric Ware, as Sadie's proud, self-reliant husband, Macon, radiates a deep, masculine strength that lends balance to the production.

Wilder's rich language and characters, as well as her quintessential distillation of the material make for a stirring evening. The only flaw in the otherwise fluid design is the representation of the quilts in the museum as blank white screens, causing us to wonder if there was some technical glitch depriving us of viewing the community's glorious creations. If we're going to be denied the slides we anticipate and desire, open frames would have better suited the intended imaginative effect.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's regional premiere of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's Gee's Bend runs through April 19th. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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