Look up quilting and you’re likely to find a reference to Gee’s Bend, Ala. The isolated peninsula on the Alabama River is home to a unique community of former African-American slaves who stitch stunning quilt patterns that serve as vibrant metaphors for their moving story in the Denver Center Theater Company’s production of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s one-act play, “Gee’s Bend.”
Recipient of the American Theater Critics Assn.’s Osborn Award for emerging playwright, presented last month at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Ky., 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 fauna with character, scenery, costume, lighting and sound.
More than a hundred years after their ancestors were first brought to this backwater to work on a plantation, the Pettways, mama Alice (Stephanie Berry) and daughters Nella (Daphne Gaines) and Sadie (Nikki E. Walker), eke out a simple life rich in love and tradition. Alice wants the best for her girls, and strives to teach them reading, writing and quilting.
Nella and Sadie may be two peas from the same pod, but they couldn’t be more different when it comes to listening to mama. 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 works 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 who unites their tradition with change, joining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement and having her quilts exhibited at museums across the country, including the Whitney.
The ensemble morphs 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 abundant history and culture.
Berry elegantly bookends the generational arc with a strong, compassionate Alice, and, later, as her thoughtful and savvy granddaughter, Asia. Walker’s Sadie reveals a big heart as a young bride, a committed social activist, visual artist and family caretaker. Gaines makes the most of Wilder’s comedic zingers and transports the aud to another world with her soul-stirring renditions of traditional spirituals, including a gut-wrenching take on “Somebody’s Knocking at Your Door.”Eric Ware, as Sadie’s proud, self-reliant husband, Macon, radiates a deep, masculine strength that lends balance to the production.
Wilder’s colorful 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. The device might be intended to produce an imaginative effect, but it’s more likely to cause theatergoers to wonder if a technical glitch is preventing slides of the community’s glorious handiwork from being projected.