Burning Coal Theatre
Through May 2
Told in slices of life linked by gospel songs over the better part of the 20th century, Gee’s Bend offers a window into a unique community. But while it puts people over history, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play sometimes obscures the significance of its subject.
Set on the Alabama island that serves as the play’s title, the narrative follows an African-American family over the course of many years. Daughter Sadie (Sherida McMullan) has a desire to learn, but a youthful pregnancy leads to her settling down with the laid-back Macon (William Byrd Wilkins). Though her sister, Nella (Emilia Me-Me-Cowans) and mother Alice (Yolanda Rabun) warn her against rocking the boat, Sadie is drawn into the burgeoning civil rights movement, which endangers both her life and her marriage to Macon. As time passes, her family’s tradition of quilting opens up new possibilities and a lasting legacy.
The play has a fascinating historical background. During the Great Depression, the white supremacist who owned much of the island went broke and sold it to the federal government, which in turn sold 100-acre parcels back to the black families in the area. Despite the island’s isolation and lack of modern amenities (and the disruption of ferry service), residents of Gee’s Bend could not be thrown off their land like sharecroppers elsewhere and became an active political force in the movement. In the late 1960s, an Episcopal priest helped get contracts with department stores for the quilts made on the island, which brought new money and fame to the women living there.
I mention all this because a great deal of this information is delivered anecdotally throughout the play. If you understand the history of Gee’s Bend going into the play, this makes more sense, but it’s easy for everyone else to miss a major portion of the story. The production gives a flavor of life in Gee’s Bend, and the quilts, by local quilters, are lovely. However, one wishes for a greater understanding of the significance of the Gee’s Bend quilterswhat made their work so unique, such as the African influence in their designs.
The actors all do fine workand their voices make the gospel songs linking the scenes a treat. But the text is sometimes overly earnest, with motifs about locked doors and ferries that never come. A monologue at the end about the quilts helps give a sense of the history of the real Gee’s Bend, but Gee’s Bend the play offers a taste of life during the civil rights era without showing why this particular story is so important.