"Gee's Bend," coming to Taproot Theatre, lovingly pieces together quilters' life stories
"Gee's Bend," a play at Seattle's Taproot Theatre, takes inspiration from the black women quilters of Gee's Bend, Ala., whose quilts are displayed in museums and sell for thousands. The play runs Jan. 30-Feb. 28.
Seattle Times theater critic
"Gee's Bend"Directed by Karen Lund, previews tonight, opens Friday and plays Wednesdays-Saturdays through Feb. 28 at Taproot Theatre, 204 N. 85th St., Seattle; $22-$28 (206-781-9707 or www.taproottheatre.org).
Related Taproot events: The theater hosts a post-play discussion with Mary Lee Bendolph and other Gee's Bend quilters on Feb. 18, plus post-play discussions with members of the Pacific Northwest African American Quilters on Wednesday evenings, February 4-25.
At Greg Kucera: The gallery hosts an exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts and etchings Feb. 19-March 28, with an opening reception 6-8 p.m. Feb. 19 (information, 206-624-0770 or www.gregkucera.com).
Mary Lee Bendolph began work on her first quilt at age 12, in her hometown of Gee's Bend, Ala.
"I was 13 years old when I finished," says Bendolph, now 73. "We ain't had nothing to work with to make it, is the reason why it took so long. Every time I got a little piece of something, I'd put it in."
Today Bendolph's vibrantly striking quilts are exhibited in art museums. They sell for thousands of dollars and win praise from art critics.
And Bendolph also helped inspire "Gee's Bend," a play by Alabama dramatist Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, which has its Seattle debut at Taproot Theatre Friday night.
Wilder drew on the lives of several African-American quilters for her play, which premiered in 2007 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, won the American Theatre Critics Association's M. Elizabeth Osborn prize, and is getting produced in Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere.
Though the characters are composites, Bendolph's hardscrabble saga is candidly reflected in the play. She grew up dirt poor in Gee's Bend, the site of a former plantation. One of 16 children, she left school in sixth grade and raised her eight kids with husband Ruben Bendolph, while at times working in textile factories.
Along the way, Bendolph stitched the beautiful quilts that were a tradition in Gee's Bend. By phone from her home there, she recalled how her mother "taught me to piece quilt, like she do — and I'm so glad! She sang, prayed, cried, pieced."
Bendolph devised her own unique patterns. "I never just sell some quilts. People came by, and I need some money, and they give me $5, $10 for a quilt. I was thankful, because I was really poor and tryin' to put my son through college."
When the 1960s Civil Rights Movement hit Gee's Bend, a local quilting collective was formed. But it was not until the late 1990s that some city art dealers started buying and collecting Bendolph's handiwork.
"I sold a quilt, it was collected in a museum, and someone paid me $1,500," she remembers happily. "You oughta been seein' me! I was so glad I didn't know what I do. I needed that money really bad."
Gee's Bend quilts have since fetched far higher prices. New York Times arts writer Michael Kimmelman praised them as "some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee ... arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves ... "
Wilder first read stories about the quilters and filed away "an idea for a play about them." She later proposed it to Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which commissioned "Gee's Bend."
"I first went down to meet some quilters at Mary Lee's house the day after Christmas, in 2004," said Wilder from her Mobile, Ala., home. "It was the first time I ever interviewed anyone, and I was nervous. But the women were so kind, so generous with their time and stories."
A white woman in her early 20s, Wilder quickly established a warm rapport with Bendolph, her daughter Essie and other black quilters.
"She just pickin' up some things from what we said, and she continue to come here and pick up on some things," Bendolph said.
Wilder's play weaves a narrative that follows several quilters over decades, examining their relationships, hardships and courageous involvement in historic civil-rights demonstrations in the nearby Camden and Selma, Ala.
"I spent the most time talking with Mary Lee, and her spirit is very much a part of the character of Sadie in the play," Wilder noted. "I've often told the story about how Mary Lee said to me, 'Just write it honest.' I wrote that line down and stuck it to my computer."
Wilder was eager to represent the women well, and invited them to the play's first reading. "She let us hear it first, to see if it was right," said Bendolph appreciatively. "I loved it. I was so proud!"
One aspect of Bendolph's life turns up in the play's portrait of a stern, controlling husband — much like Bendolph's late husband, Ruben. "He didn't like me to go nowhere," she recalls.
Now, thanks to the play's success and exhibits of her quilts, Bendolph travels as often as her health permits. (She, with daughter-in-law Louisiana Bendolph and fellow quilter Loretta Bennett, will speak at a post-play event at Taproot on Feb. 18.)
One recent trip was to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of President Obama. Though she didn't get to witness the events close up, the occasion was momentous for Bendolph.
Did this descendant of slaves ever think she'd see a black American president?
"No!" she said, with a whoop. "But I was lookin' forward. And the Lord let me live long enough to get there, and see that. And I thank the Lord for that."
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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