There is one intensely effective passage in Elyzabeth Wilder's Gee's Bend. Against her husband's wishes, the protagonist, Sadie, has gone to Selma to march with Martin Luther King Jr. She returns, bloodied and half blinded by tear gas, to find that her husband has locked her out of the house. He's seated in the half dark but stands up at one point, indecisive, then sinks down again while Sadie beats on the door and begs him to let her in. The scene is accompanied by the mournful strains of a beautifully sung spiritual.
This is the highlight of what is essentially a banal and emotionally manipulative play — one that should have been much, much better. The story of Gee's Bend and the women who created its famed quilts is a fascinating one. A peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River, Gee's Bend was populated by the descendants of slaves who continued to live there in desperate poverty as sharecroppers after the Civil War. In the 1930s, the federal government stepped in to alleviate their suffering, purchasing land and selling it to those who had farmed it, building homes and offering low-interest mortgages. The residents of Gee's Bend who joined the civil rights struggles of the 1960s were fortified in their resistance by the knowledge that they owned their own land, though registering to vote still carried risks and, in a punitive move, the state cut the ferry service across the river.
For generations, the women of Gee's Bend had made quilts, using age-old skills and whatever bits and pieces of cloth they could get their hands on — old clothing or bedding, cornmeal sack. They sang hymns as they worked — alone or in groups — and, possessed of a sure, clear sense of who they were and what they were doing, they transformed the mundane and ordinary into art. Although they used traditional quilting patterns, they improvised within and around those patterns, both because they had to incorporate scraps of different sizes and textures, and also to express their own ideas — ideas inspired by nature, work in the fields, even the variegated outlines created by the newspapers with which they covered their flimsy walls. When these quilts, with their vibrant colors and form-breaking patterns, finally came to national attention and were shown at the Whitney Museum in New York, a reviewer for the New York Times called them "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee...arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South." The best of the quilts, he said, were "eye-poppingly gorgeous."
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Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 19, Space Theatre, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Wilder was commissioned to write Gee's Bend by Denver Center Theatre Company artistic director Kent Thompson back when he headed the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the play just won the American Theatre Critics Association M. Elizabeth Osborn New Play Award for an emerging playwright. Wilder says she based her script on conversations with the quilters and used their own words. Still, you have to wonder how she selected those words. It's hard to believe these women were always as stereotypically wise, noble, long-suffering or cutely funny as she shows them to be. There's just no complexity here, and every speech and plot turn is thumpingly obvious. It doesn't help that director Kent Gash has his actors work in a twinkly-eyed, over-energetic style and seems as keen as the playwright to make sure we understand that everything we're seeing — absolutely everything — is freighted with profound meaning and symbolism. To this end, he periodically has the actresses perform a waving-armed dance that looks dangerously like eurythmics.
Despite all this, there are some good performances. As Sadie, Nikki E. Walker changes from an innocent girl to a woman in front of your eyes, and you can't help being moved by her passion and integrity. Eric Ware is a believable Macon, and while Daphne Gaines indicates a bit too much as Nella, the sassy sister who doesn't want to learn to quilt, she sings wonderfully. But the characters played by Stephanie Berry — a long-suffering and conventional mother, a modern businesswoman daughter — don't give her much to work with. Even the most talented quilter couldn't piece the parts of this play into whole cloth.