I have to be honest-- when I walked into the Arkansas Repertory Theatre last Sunday afternoon to see "Gee's Bend," I really didn't know what to expect.
I was somewhat familiar with the story, but wasn't sure how it could have been captured on stage.
Little did I know how much of an impact this play would have on me. Not only did the small cast of four weave such a captivating story with their overriding charm, strength and true emotion, but to see how these quilts they created become stories themselves and eventually showcased to the world, was rewarding in itself.
"Gee's Bend," which opened last week at The Rep, tells the true journey of the Pettway family who turned to quilting as a way to express their true creativity and also as a way to provide a sense of comfort.
What began as a special thing to do together turned into brilliant works of art with pieces of their life sewn together by the very hands of Sadie (Nambi E. Kelley), her mother Alice (Monica Parks) and Nella (Shannon Lamb), who helped with "piecing," but never actually quite got the hang of the quilting game.
In the first scene, beautiful Gospel voices serenaded the audience-- something that accompanied almost every scene in the play-- as we were first introduced to Sadie, a young vibrant woman playing outside in the hay of her family's home in Boykin, Ala., also known as Gee's Bend, a historically black community occupying a U-shaped peninsula surrounded by the Alabama River.
It's the very end of the 1930s and what we see is the insurmountable love among the women, who are first shown picking patches and flattening out cotton for the next quilt at their home.
They're all seated on the one-piece set-- what resembles a cabin with boards of wood every which-way and a two-level wood-panel floor that includes a small space for their quilts. It is used as a backdrop for just about every scene.
At the start of the story, the first source of contention is Sadie's boyfriend Macon (Corey Jones), who the mother forbids her to see. She seems to forget about all that-- the two marry and their story becomes a focal point in the play.
We are carried through decades of their livelihood in the small Alabama town, with an emphasis in the 1950s and '60s as the Civil Rights Movement is in full force. Segregation is at the very heart of the South at this time. What you see in the play is the powerful conviction of a woman who will not back down in Kelley's portrayal of lead Sadie. It is evident in one of the most compelling scenes in the play where she stands up and drinks out of a water fountain marked "Whites Only." It's there when she tells her sister Nella, it was "like a little piece of heaven."
While these hardships bring a level of authenticity of life at the time to the play, it's also the humor that offers a dose of reality. Bits of humor are injected in many of the scenes and you can't miss the sweet charm of Sadie, the sassiness and strong-willed nature of Nella, and the tenacity and fervor of mom Alica, who is the backbone of this strong group of women.
Something else that stands out are the costumes, which become a centerpiece for the progression of their lives. The characters start out with simple plaid and floral frocks, but as the years pass by, we see a more prim-and-proper look, especially with Sadie. In the midst of the story, she is seen wearing a belted floral dress -- a personal creation-- that she liked to wear for special occasions.
Of course, the bold and beautiful quilts are a part of just about every laugh, smile, heartache and bout of tears during the course of the story. It is amazing how these quilts got them through the hard times and brought so much joy.
It's when the much older, and much wiser Sadie-- in the year 2000-- makes her way to the very spot of hay she was seen playing in at the beginning of the play, that you realize you never forget where came from.
There's still time to see the show-- it will be running until Feb. 10.
And don't miss the Girl’s Night Special-- buy one ticket, get one free for the 7 p.m. show this Sunday night (Feb. 3). Have fun with the girls while the guys are watching the Super Bowl.
Purchase tickets online here, call 501-378-0405 or visit the box office, 601 Main St., Little Rock.