I believe that THE great story of my generation, of the last half of the twentieth-century, is the Civil Rights movement. Beginning with protests against institutionalized segregation and culminating in the Presidency of Barack Obama, this country, for all the progress that still remains to be made, was transformed in ways that previous generations could have scarcely imagined. “Gee's Bend” follows that great journey through the experience of one family in a tiny town at the bend of a river in Alabama. Beautifully written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, this Taproot production gives a powerful and authentically moving performance under the direction of Karen Lund. Funny, genuinely touching without ever being sentimental of falsely noble, it is filled with real events, defining moments, in the lives of fully-rounded and affecting characters.
The play opens in 1939 with two sisters, the brash and irrepressible Sadie and her older sister, Nella, squabbling about boys and the world on the other side of the river, a world accessible only by a small ferry which suspends service through most of the next few decades. As a result, the little town of Gee's Bend is even more isolated, even as the inhabitants are ever more engaged in the larger world outside. Sadie likes a boy, the hard-working and strong-minded Macon, whom she will marry soon after she becomes pregnant with his child. Overseeing the home is Mama Alice, the sort of indelible matriarch who held many families like this together. Over the course of this 90 minute play, which covers the years between 1939 and 2000, we will see Mama's passing, the dissolution of the marriage between Sadie and Macon as she becomes increasingly committed to the Civil Rights struggle, the death of Macon, the adult relationship between the two sisters and a relatively brief introduction to the adult Asia, Macon and Sadie's child. She belongs to a different world, a world that can only hope to recover the history of her ancestors and of the times and places that have shaped her.
The women, especially Mama and Sadie, make quilts, and from the way they learn “piecing,” learn to make warm and enduring objects from the scraps around them, they eventually find they have created something that the outside world calls “art.” That art is the gift that this play, with its scraps and pieces of their colorful lives, gives to us, as well.
Karen Lund has a particular gift for bringing actors to performances that feel organic; never contrived, never forced, she gives them just the proportion and emphasis justified by the scene. Of course, she also has some very talented people to work with. Samantha Rund was sparkling and utterly endearing as Sadie. When she must make her stand for freedom, for her personal declaration of dignity and equality, it is against both Macon and the larger world, and all that charm and delight reveals a deeper strength and integrity that will make her into her own person. Geoffery Simmons is strong and thoroughly convincing as Macon, a man who is really only trying to live up to his own expectations of what a man's role should be, what a wife's role should be, how people should fit into the world and earn their way. The older sister, Nella, has her own notions of how you earn your place in the world, and her insecurities and inadequacies are covered in a delicious attitude and straight-forward assertion of how the world needs to fit her. Tracy Michelle Hughes, as Nella, has some of the very best comic lines, and they always come out of character, out of this individual's response to circumstance and relationship. Faith Russell was a very human-scaled tower of strength as Mama Alice, and a very different but equally compelling modern woman as the grown child, Asia. The best thing I can say about this ensemble is it was entirely convincing as a family, that unit which both knows and can never know the distinctive natures of one another. The progress of time, the aging and maturing of these individuals was beautifully accomplished, a combination of technical acting skill and thoroughly integrated dramatic incident.
“Gee's Bend” was one of the most satisfying and admirable plays I've seen in months, but it is much more than a heroic history lesson on the march to freedom. It's a family drama, a play about people and what they mean to each other and how they make their way through life. This is, start to finish, a profoundly personal and human story, and Ms. Lund brilliantly controls the ebb and flow of the most private and most public of emotions as these people grow through the development of their lives and of the world around them. At this particular moment in history this play brings a special humor, elegance and truth to the specific history of these people, and through their story we see our own with greater clarity, greater perspective. “Gee's Bend” is an unforgettable place, and we are different for having spent time there.
PICTURED ABOVE: (L to R) Faith Russell, Samantha Rund,and Tracy Michelle Hughes. Photo by Erik Stuhaug