Bre Pactor (C’20), Taela Bland (C’22), and Asyjia Brown (C’20) perform in Elyzabeth Wilder’s Gees Bend. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).
By Kristopher Kennedy
At the University of the South, two points of artistic expression converged in Convocation Hall simultaneously, each one telling the story of the Gee’s Bend quilters.
On Thursday, September 26, a reading of the play Gee’s Bend was held in Convocation Hall, right beside the exhibit of the Gee’s Bend quilts in the University Art Gallery. Gee’s Bend, winner of the 2008 Osborn Award from the American Theater Critics Association, was commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2004 and eventually penned by Elyzabeth Wilder, the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-residence at Sewanee.
Wilder made her first visit to Gee’s Bend on December 26, 2004, exactly two years before the show’s first rehearsal in 2006. Since then, there have been over 85 productions of Wilder’s play across the country.
Gee’s Bend, an isolated hamlet in modern-day Boykin, Alabama surrounded by the Alabama River. In Gee’s Bend, 42 women over four generations stitched 60 quilts, noted for their idiosyncratic and innovative design as well as their minimalist look. The quilts were put on display in 2002 and have traveled around the U.S. on exhibit since.
When it was announced last year that the University Gallery would exhibit the Gee’s Bend quilts at Sewanee, Director of the University Art Gallery and Curator of Academic Engagement Dr. Shelley MacLaren approached Wilder and asked her if she would be interested in organizing a staged reading of the Gee’s Bend play. Wilder agreed and began organizing her team this past spring.
The play requires a small cast—three women, one man—and the four student readers were picked out: Taela Bland (C’22), Asyjia Brown (C’20), Cameron Noel (C’21), and Bre Pactor (C’20). However, due to busy schedules, the actors were only able to rehearse a total of two hours with the whole cast together before performing.
Bland, who read the part of Nella, noted that “it was borderline impossible” putting the reading together. She said, “I am a sophomore with four classes, four jobs…an athlete, an actress in [Our Country’s Good] and that was just me, Lord knows the others!” before adding, “It was a challenge to get us all together, but once we did, it was well worth the wait.”
Following a reception featuring delectably savory cookies and scintillatingly sweet lemonade, the readers prepared to begin the play. The audience took their seats, Wilder introduced the play, and then Gee’s Bend was brought to life.
The play began with the singing of gospel music and African American spirituals—music that would reappear throughout the play. These songs Wilder incorporated into the show are native to the Gee’s Bend community, where music is an extension of prayer. According to Wilder, “The women sing when they work, when they pray, and when they quilt. I wanted to make sure that was represented in the play and I wanted to make sure that the music was authentic.”
The music was Bland’s favorite moment from the reading, as she remembered, “I close my eyes when I sing soul and/or gospel a lot, and it was seeing the after-effects of my singing and what I sang and how it hit the people that really amazed me.”
One of Wilder’s favorite moments in the show is when the quilters first see their work on museum display. Wilder stated, “At that point they’ve been on this miraculous journey and are experiencing something they never thought possible. It feels like such a moment of affirmation.”
The reading was a success, clocking in at around 75 minutes. Afterwards, audience members had the chance to look around and observe the actual quilts of Gee’s Bend on adjunct display in the University Gallery—the quilts at the heart of the story.
“For such a long time, quilting was such an important part of our culture,” asserted Wilder, “They kept us warm, they built community…they recorded our histories in the clothing and textiles used to make them. People see this play and are reminded of their own family quilts, and they enjoy sharing those stories with me.”
This recurrent motif of storytelling in its various forms has been critical to Wilder’s experience with the show these past 15 years. She has seen Gee’s Bend produced across the country—in national theaters, in high-schools.
But Wilder remembers the most powerful performance of her play as the one “in a tent that was set up in what was once a cotton field in Gee’s Bend” where “the whole town came to see it.” Wilder said, “To be entrusted with their story and to then have the chance to give it back to them was such an honor.”
“We all have things we hold and share that tie us to our families and our heritage,” remarked Bland, “It is important to identify those things and, in like how [the women of Gee’s Bend] did with their quilts, share them and the story with it. It is so important to break cultural boundaries and expand understanding throughout. That is how the world can work together.”