Carolyn Griffin, the jack-of-all-theater trades who runs MetroStage, still can’t believe she’s offering the D.C. premiere of Gee’s Bend, a 2007 play about three generations of Alabama quilters. “It’s been all over the country,” she says, shaking her head before a show last week. “Gee’s Bend been done in big cities, but it’s never been here.” Griffin is the producing artistic director (and bartender) of the small theater in Alexandria that finally chose to do it, and is doing it exceptionally well.
Gee’s Bend premiered in 2007 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. The play was commissioned to serve as a dramatic companion to the national touring exhibition of quilts made by African-American women in an isolated hamlet called Gee’s Bend. (There is also a PBS documentary, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, and a jazz suite by Jason Moran.) The quilts are brightly colored and cut without rulers into angular patterns. They were stitched to last by generations of women stronger than they seem. The festival charged Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder—a white playwright—with getting to know these quilters, both through interviews and historical records. The resulting script depicts characters who are hardly cut from patterns, and at MetroStage, a quartet of Equity actors depict them glowingly.
Roz White stars as Sadie Pettway and Margo Moore as her sister, Nella. In the opening scenes, the girls are teenagers in 1939, grousing at having to learn to cook, clean, and quilt so, as their mother says, they’ll be able to fix supper for their husbands someday. That day comes sooner than Sadie thinks, since a roll on a quilt on the banks of the Alabama River produces her first child at age 15. Decades go by during some scene changes in Gee’s Bend, and as they roll wooden panels and simple set pieces across the stage, all four actors sing.
The script calls for four spirituals to be woven into script. Griffin wanted to expand the role of music in the play and hired a percussionist (Greg Halloway) and two music directors (William Hubbard and William Knowles) to explore the gospel canon. Snippets of 17 songs are now sung throughout the play, and it is impossible to imagine this show working any other way. White, Moore, Duyen Washington, and Anthony Manough sound fabulous singing in a four-part harmony. The songs are less familiar then, say, “Wade in the Water” or “Fix Me Jesus,” and that’s to everyone’s advantage.
There’s no story arc in this episodic play, and the dramatic tension peaks halfway through, during scenes set in the Civil Rights era. Plenty of films and plays display the heroism of African Americans who stood up for their rights in the faces of racism. What you don’t see as often are the wrenching scenes as in Gee’s Bend, where Sadie struggles to persuade her sister to go marching in Selma, and her own husband beats her for going to hear Martin Luther King Jr.
What seems somewhat less authentic is the lack of quilting lingo in the script. Surely these ladies would have mentioned more sewing terms than just needle and thread as they sat stitching designs known as “Roman Stripes,” “Lazy Gals,” and “Courthouse Steps.” They are not entirely convincing as expert quilters, but their characters still feel fleshed out. Come show’s end, they’re marveling at unseen quilts hanging on a museum walls. For the audience, what’s transpired onstage is just as vivid.