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Originally published Tuesday, February 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Theater review | "Gee's Bend" crafts civil-rights history through everyday life

Theater review by Misha Berson: Taproot Theatre's "Gee's Bend" dramatizes the story of the African-American Gee's Bend quilters of Alabama, looking at culture, the legacy of slavery and the civil-rights movement though their eyes. It plays through Feb. 28.

Seattle Times theater critic

Now playing

"Gee's Bend"

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: Post-play discussions with Mary Lee Bendolph and other Gee's Bend quilters on Feb. 18 and 21, and 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).

Theater Review |

There are plays that are welcome more for the historical moments they evoke, rather than the measure of the dialogue, the plot, even the performances.

That is apropos of "Gee's Bend," a warmhearted, often humorous tale about black quilters in the Deep South, before and after racial segregation.

Taproot Theatre is mounting a heartfelt though uneven production of "Gee's Bend," under Karen Lund's direction, with hearty dollops of a cappella gospel music. And interest in the show is heightened by the real Alabama women who inspired Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's script. (Some will appear at two post-play events; see box.)

The central character of Sadie — like the female residents of Gee's Bend, Ala., researched and interviewed by Wilder — grows up poor in an isolated town that was once a cotton plantation tended to by her slave ancestors.

But times change profoundly over the course of "Gee's Bend," which begins in 1939 and ends 61 years later. Early on are scenes of the adolescence of Sadie (played by Samantha Rund), and her wooing by and marriage to an ambitious local farmer, Macon (Geoffery Simmons).

Then the action jumps forward to the early 1960s. That's when Sadie gets the gumption to go hear civil-rights crusader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at a local church — which scares her husband and her mother, Alice (Faith Russell), and for good reason

But with her scrappy, carping sister Nella (Tracy Michelle Hughes) in tow, Sadie makes her stand. And later she incurs her husband's wrath by joining in an MLK-led demonstration in Selma, Ala., which turned into a melee — the marchers were tear-gassed and beaten with billy clubs by local and state police.

You will get more detailed information on the landmark Selma protest from the excellent PBS series on the civil-rights era, "Eyes on the Prize."

What "Gee's Bend" wants to do is view those times and the courage of everyday people involved in the struggle for human rights through the personal saga of a wife, mother and craftswoman who almost reluctantly gets caught up in the battle.

The play does that, though the scenes are awkwardly paced, the pacing of them choppy. And vivid actors are needed to give them force. Rund, though attractive and engaging, lacks the vocal and emotive power to fill out the dimensions of Sadie.

And as the increasingly abusive and physically ill Macon, Simmons has a commanding presence but conveys frustration with an overload of pacing and shouting.

Russell gives off a lovely sense of comfort and warmth as Alice. But by far the most dynamic performance in the show is that of Hughes.

Her Nella is brassy-voiced and ornery, an unconscious feminist who sidesteps marriage because no man is good enough for her — and (woman of my own heart) because she despises housekeeping.

When scenes begin to sag (and they do so most often in a sluggish contemporary coda which stitches everything up too neatly), it is Hughes' Nella who sticks out her chin, puffs out her chest and disturbs the peace.

One wishes there was a bit more about quilting itself in the play and less of the "Sturm and Drang" of marital melodrama.

What Wilder pays homage to, however, is well worth celebrating: the resilience of African-American spirit and culture, which enriches the entire nation.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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