Thursday, February 14, 2008

Gee's Bend

CPH’s ‘GEE’S BEND,’ production exceeds script

Gee’s Bend, Alabama, the physical setting for Elizabeth Gregory Wilder’s ‘GEE’S BEND,’ now on stage at the Cleveland Play House, is a real place. It came into prominence because of the discovery and museum displays of the quilts made by the women of the community. Those quilts are not only pieces of art, but they represent the very fabric of the community.

Wilder’s 90-minute intermissionless play basically tells the story of one of the quilting families. But, in reality, it opens the lens to the entire community.

According to Wilder, this is the first play she has written that isn’t solely born of her own imagination. She interviewed many of the quilting women and felt an obligation to tell about their miraculous journey of community.

Wilder's drama weaves the history of Gee’s Bend into the dialogue. We discover that following the Civil War there was an opportunity for the slaves to flee, but they didn’t leave as they had no place to go. In the 1930s, the Farm Administration gave the community the opportunity to own their own land, and they took advantage of the offer. In the 1960s, Gee’s Bend gained the attention of civil rights leaders because it was one of the few communities where all of the negroes owned their own land. Then, in 2002, came national attention when the quilts were discovered.

It’s interesting that the overall effect of the CPH production exceeds the quality of the play. The script, in many instances, is quite sophomoric in its structure and language. For example, the play ends several times. The audience broke out into strong applause at one point, thinking the show was over, only to be surprised when another scene, supposedly needed to wrap up the story, started. Due to the added “everything turns out wonderful” ending, the final applause was not as strong as the original outburst.

The cast is generally strong, though Shirley Jo Finey’s directing often makes the consistent development of characterizations inconsistent. For example, Shanesia Davis, who portrays the unmarried sister, is wonderful in early scenes, but when she becomes older, she does a shuffle like a character in the old-time minstrel shows and her voice makes her sound retarded rather than old.

Erika LaVonn, does an excellent job of creating a real person as Sadie, the “intelligent” sister who marries young and lives in an abusive relationship until she gains the courage to break out. The money she makes from selling her quilts allows her to become an independent woman.

Wanda Christine is moderately successful doing double duty as the mother and Sadie’s daughter.

Wendell B. Franklin, as Sadie’s husband Macon, gives a creditable performance.

The play works well in the reconfigured Baxter Stage’s 3-sided stage. The new layout makes the space less confined.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ‘GEE’S BEND’ tells a nice story, but it is far from a well written script. In spite of the weakness of the writing, the message of the play, and the tenacity of the women of Gee’s Bend, comes through.