Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: OCTOBER 29, 2010
A slice of African American history is just around the bend – Gee’s Ben d . That’s the name of a remote Alabama community, and an earnest play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. The tiny town has become famous. The isolated women of the former plantation stitch their hopes, fears and lives into wildly colorful, abstract quilts, amazing works of art that have graced museum walls and postage stamps. One eye-popping quilt is now on display at North Coast Repertory Theatre, and it really is something to behold.
Playwright Wilder, a young white woman, interviewed the Gee’s Ben d residents and patched together her own vivid creation. Like the quilts of her subjects, it’s a patchwork that comes from the heart. But it also feels pieced together, not sufficiently cohesive, a string of anecdotes and stories linked by three generations of one family, followed over the course of seven decades. The plight of African Americans is mostly backdrop, but becomes foreground when the central character defies her husband and goes off to march in Selma with Martin Luther King. That moment, coupled with her drinking from the Whites Only water fountain, proves to be Sadie’s private declaration of independence.
A fictional composite character, Sadie was just 15 when she got pregnant in 1939, and married the ambitious farmer Macon, bearing him more children, just as he wanted. But when she starts asserting her autonomy, he beats her up, and when she comes home from Selma battered and bruised, he locks her out of the house (“how else you goin ’ learn?,” he says). That’s when she recognizes her own strength, and realizes that the quilts she’s been making from scraps of fabric and thread can be her liberation. She sells them for $10 apiece, and earns enough money to maintain her land and support her children. We don’t mourn Macon ’s passing. And we don’t get much of the community feel, just the one family, with its strong, steadfast mother, and ornery sister who refuses to learn quilting or homemaking skills or accept any old husband.
The sisters’ interactions are best in their dotage, in 2002. We see some lovely performances, anchored by the marvelous Monique Gaffney as Sadie, with excellent support from Licia Shearer as her feisty sister, Laurence Brown as her fearful, easily threatened husband, and Charmen Jackson doing double duty as Sadie’s mother and daughter. The set, lighting and sound design are evocative. The gospel singing could be more potent and memorable. The play would be so much more satisfying if we learned more about the community, the women’s need to quilt, and the source of their brilliantly modern designs.
Still, this is a compelling story and an important piece of the fabric of African American history.
“Gee’s Ben d” runs through November 7, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach .
©2010 PAT LAUNER