Title: A patchwork of African American history
“Gee’s Ben d” tells the heartfelt story of three generations of quilters
Some people write their pain in poetry. Some paint; some pen songs. But in Gee’s Ben d , Alabama , lives are stitched into quilts. Using scraps from old shirts and rags, generations of slave descendents on this isolated former plantation piece together their past. The wildly colorful quilts, which are surprisingly modern and abstract, have appeared at the Whitney Museum of American Art and on postage stamps. One is even on display in Solana Beach , in the company of a gorgeous private collection of antique quilts, amassed by NCRT supporter Pat L. Nickols . Among those classic patterns, the Gee’s Ben d quilt pops out.
The play traces three generations of one family, but focuses on Sadie, raised by her hardscrabble, no-nonsense mother, Alice (Charmen Jackson, who later plays Sadie’s daughter, Asia ). She was taught from a young age to start “piecing,” ripping up tattered clothes, sewing them into marvelous quilts (“ Piece it like you see in your mind, they be pretty,” Alice advises). Sadie’s sister, Nella ( Licia Shearer), shuns the quilting, and all other manner of homemaking.
Sadie loves to read, but is forced to leave school when she gets pregnant at age 15. It’s 1939, and we follow her through 2002. The climactic moment comes in 1965 when, against her husband Macon’s wishes, Sadie sets out to march with Dr. King in the Selma demonstration. She even hazards a drink from the Whites Only water fountain (“tastes like a little piece o’ heaven,” she tells her wary sister). When Sadie returns home from Selma, battered by the police, Macon, who has already beaten her for her independence (“just cause you got a vote out there don’t mean you got a vote in here”), locks her out of the house. This is the beginning of her personal emancipation, which includes the realization that she can support herself, and continue to live on her beloved family land, if she can sell her quilts ( Macon calls them “ugly things”). The community starts a Freedom Quilting Bee. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The story is gripping, but the play is too episodic, and the singing (gospel music interlaces the scenes) should be stronger. The running time should be shorter and the pace quicker.
The North Coast Repertory Theatre production, under the direction of acclaimed actor/singer Yvette Freeman, only picks up steam after Sadie comes into her own. Then, it’s a story of survival and self-actualization, though we don’t get enough of how this isolated quilting community came to such startlingly non-traditional designs.
The performances are admirable, centered by Monique Gaffney ’s marvelous portrayal of Sadie, part dreamer, part pragmatist. Shearer is wonderful as ornery Nella , Laurence Brown becomes aptly villainous and consumptive as Macon , and Charmen Jackson is resolute as mama Alice.
The set ( Marty Burnett ) is all rough-hewn wood, enhanced by the lighting (M. Scott Grabau ) and sound ( Chris Luessmann ) design.
There are moments of heartbreaking history. But unlike the quilts, the fragmented story doesn’t come together into a satisfying whole. Still, it’s well worth seeing this slice of Southern life and compelling piece of the past.
“Gee’s Ben d” runs through November 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Performances are Wed at 7:30pm, Thurs-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2 and 7pm; select Wednesdays at 7pm and certain Saturdays at 2pm.
Tickets — $30-47 — are available at 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org