Charlette Speigner and Penelope Walker in Gee's Bend. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Playwright: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder . At: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie, Skokie . Phone: 847-673-6300; $35-$55 . Runs through: March 9
There are great performances to behold in Northlight Theatre's production of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's 2007 drama Gee's Bend. Unfortunately, the play itself doesn't rise to the occasion of its compelling subject matter, or the fine cast and crew assembled at Northlight.
The isolated Alabama town of Gee's Bend has become famous this decade due to the finely crafted folk art quilts made by generations of its African-American women. Award-winning newspaper articles on these women have helped put Gee's Bend on the map, while their praised handcrafted work has been displayed in major museums and featured on a series of U.S. postage stamps.
Now comes Wilder's definitively titled play Gee's Bend, but it comes up lacking despite the comprehensive 60-year timeline attached to it. Wilder tries to make a five-character composite family ( played by four actors ) to represent the wider Gee's Bend community at large.
Unfortunately, the drama Wilder creates is largely of an everyday domestic nature, making you feel that a more dramatic angle could have been explored. Also, the actual quilt making and its significance is left largely in the background without a stronger metaphor to tie the women's lives to their practical art.
The small cast size in Gee's Bend also points to an unfortunate trend where American playwrights are encouraged to create economical works by keeping the number of actors low. The fact that the cast sings along with pre-recorded gospel tracks to provide a richer sound shows just what is missing.
Though Wilder's play isn't the greatest, the Northlight cast assembled by director Chuck Smith for Gee's Bend is superlative.
Charlette Speigner shows once again that she is a formidable Chicago actress to watch as she embodies the headstrong quilt maker Sadie. Speigner particularly impresses in the scenes where Sadie defies her husband to march in the Civil Rights movement and get her voter registration card.
John Steven Crowley is strong as Sadie's equally headstrong husband, Macon, while Jacqueline Williams wins most of the laughs as Sadie's blunt and unwed sister, Nella. Penelope Walker provides solid support work as both Sadie's wise mother, Alice, and her grown daughter, Asia.
In Gee's Bend, one gets the message that despite all the hardships of poverty and institutionalized racism, the talented women of the community went on to unwittingly create admirable and practical works of art. As a play to educate and enlighten ( particularly during Black History Month ) , Gee's Bend does its duty, but not to the fullest or finest effect.