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Review: A Stitch in Time

Powerful “Gee’s Bend” debuts at MetroStage.

Anthony Manough as Macon and Roz White as Sadie.

Anthony Manough as Macon and Roz White as Sadie. Photograph by Chris Banks

— It’s officially known as Boykin, Ala., with a population of 275. But the former slave plantation on the banks of the Alabama River gained prominence as Gee’s Bend, an isolated African American community known for the role its folk art quilts played in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Making its Washington area debut at MetroStage is the powerful “Gee’s Bend,” Elizabeth Gregory Wilder’s story of the quilters of Gee's Bend and their determination to overcome crippling poverty and racism.

Commissioned by the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in 2006, the story begins in 1939, when the families of Gee's Bend become landowners, and follows the central character of Sadie Pettway through the trials of marriage and racial indignities. Together with her mother Alice and sister Nella, Sadie perseveres, inspired by a visit from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 and the discovery of her quilts by a local minister.

“Dr. King gave the sermon of a lifetime in Gee’s Bend,” said Arlie Schardt, a Time Magazine reporter who traveled throughout the south with King and attended the Sept. 15 performance at MetroStage. “It was a horribly stormy night and with the roads washed out, he knew the Klan was waiting for him. But he went anyway and infused everyone with courage, dignity and hope in what was the most inspiring talk we ever heard him give.”

Also in attendance was Peggy Treadwell, cousin of Francis X. Walter, the Episcopalian priest who founded the quilting co-op to help foster economic independence for the women of Gee’s Bend.

“Francis was the rector of a black church near Gee’s Bend and saw these incredible quilts hanging on a line,” Treadwell said. “But when he approached the house to ask about them, everyone scattered into the woods because they were so afraid of a white man. But Francis sat there and waited, literally for hours, he was so intent on learning more about the quilts.”

Walters’ discovery of the quilts transformed the lives of the women of Gee’s Bend, as adeptly chronicled in Wilder’s script, directed at MetroStage by Thomas Jones and starring Roz White as Sadie, Margo Moorer as Nella, and Duyen Washington in the dual role of Sadie’s mother Alice and later as Sadie’s daughter Asia. Rounding out the cast is Anthony Manough as Macon, Sadie’s husband.

Betsy Muller’s rustic setting reflects the artistry of the quilts and costumes by Janine Sunday define the ages of the characters over the years. But it’s the hauntingly beautiful score of gospel melodies under the direction of William Hubbard and William Knowles that makes this production soar.

As Sadie, White anchors the incomparable cast and transitions beautifully from young naïf to long-suffering wife and bloodied participant in the March on Selma. Moorer is sassy as sister Nella, reprising her dynamic performance from the original production. Washington and Manough complete the tour de force ensemble that pays homage to the resilience of the African American spirit in times of struggle.

“This is a magnificent play,” Schardt said. “It captured a rare moment in the Civil Rights movement that got little coverage at the time. It was a thrill to see it.”

Today, the quilts crafted in Gee’s Bend command high prices and line the walls of museums. They can also be seen in the MetroStage production that brilliantly stitches together a powerful story of triumph.

“Gee’s Bend” plays through Nov. 3 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. For tickets or more information, call 703-548-9044 or visit www.metrostage.org.