Gee's Bend Learning Guide


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Gee's Bend Learning Guide

  1. 1. ISSUE03 THE KANSAS CITY REPERTORY SPRINT SERIES LEARNING GUIDE THEATREAPRIL2008 I NSIDE T HIS I SSUE A New Play Called Gee’s Bend P.2 MELINDA MCCRARY Director of Education and Community Programs The Characters P.3 816-235-5708 The Action of the Play P.4 The Art of Necessity P.8 AMY TONYES Education AssociateInterview with the Playwright P.11 816-235-2707 The Women & The Quilts P.12 Quilting Terminology P.13 Images and Issues P.14 Literature Connections P.15 Quilts as Image P.16 LETTER FROM THE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT Dear Valued Educators, Classroom Connections P.17 Welcome to Kansas City Repertory’s Copaken Stage for As William Arnett and Paul Arnett surmise in their Further Research P.18 Gee’s Bend by Elyzabeth Wilder. We believe this will be a gorgeous book Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their moving and enlightening morning of theatre for your Quilts, “Now, in the dawn of the twenty-first century, Reminders and Information P.20 students, signifying again that there is a great joy in arts what is the outlook for Gee’s Bend? As developed education. It is, as always, gratifying for us to partner over the course of the twentieth century, the Gee’s Community Resources P.22 with you as you share these special experiences with Bend art tradition embodies three great themes in Sponsors P.24 your students. American quilts: quilts as formally sophisticate design, quilts as vessels of cultural survival and continuity, The history and culture of our complex country provides and quilts as portraits of women’s identities.” It is playwrights with countless bright ideas for plays. This is with great pride that we contribute to the portraits of one of those bright ideas matched with a young and these American women. compassionate storyteller to bring it to life. Gee’s Bend, Alabama harbors a uniquely fascinating treasure chest of By sharing this specific and amazing story of personal history and culture. This play is particularly wonderful expression and exceptional visual art with your for young audiences whose ownership of history, students, we believe you are going above and beyond community and tradition we all continually seek to in sharing the arts and history with them. That’s just a engage and enhance. The energy, creativity and love for fancy way to say, “Thanks for coming and enjoy.” life of the characters in this play, and in the real life Gee’s Bend that inspired it, are qualities for us to appreciate and emulate. The use of quilts, as metaphors for our experiences, is not new but continues to be valuable for Melinda McCrary us to explore. The image of seemingly useless scraps or Director of Education and Community Programs bits put together to make a beautiful and necessary whole resonates for anyone of any age or ethnicity, anywhere. As one of the Gee’s Bend quilters pointed out in an interview, “You didn’t have nothin’ to throw away.”
  2. 2. A N EW P LAY C ALLEDUP CLOSE: G EE ’ S B ENDAbout the Playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s new play explores a small town with a history of struggle, strength and beauty.Playwright Elyzabeth Wilder Gees Bend is a U-shaped piece of land five Three actresses and one actor play all theis an Alabama native. Her miles wide and eight miles long on the roles, one actress portraying Sadie in allfirst play, “Tales of an Alabama River south of Selma. It has had three acts while another portrays herAdolescent Fruit Fly,” was that name since the European settlement of sister Nella. The third actress plays Alice,produced by the Ergo Alabama; what the wind and water call it or the mother, in the first two acts and thenTheatre Company in NewYork City and optioned for how the native Americans referred to it is portrays Sadies daughter Asia in the lastfilm by Emotion Pictures. lost to time. It is not a county seat; no act. (Thus, when Alzheimers-challengedSince then she has had plays highway runs through it. In fact, until 1967 Nella enters in Act Three, sees Asia, andproduced in both the U.S. the road into Gees Bend wasnt even paved. says, "Aint mama pretty?" her line is bothand London. Her work has an indication of herbeen workshopped at the But some remarkable dementia and a meta-Alabama Shakespeare theatrical reference to folk artists live andFestival’s Southern Writer’s the doubling.)Project, Collaborative Arts work in Gees Bend,Project 21, New Jersey Rep, women whose quilts have been exhibited in The actor plays Macon,and the Sewanee Writer’sConference, where she was museums across the the man who woos andawarded the Tennessee country. Its amazing weds Sadie. The livesWilliams Playwriting what can grow in a these actors portray giveScholarship. small Alabama town us insight into the thank s to the changing issues of the hardihood and spirit of 20th century—racial those who live there. issues, gender issues, generational issues, economic issues—and into the lives of some truly remarkable Of late, Gees Bend—since 1949 known to Alabama women. It captures a world that the U.S. Post Office as Boykin, Alabama—has is disappearing, for today the young been in the news for two diverse issues, for people leave Gees Bend for better its quilts and quiltmakers and for its ferry. opportunities in big cities rather than stay Both items figure in Elyzabeth Wilders new to farm and quilt. play, Gee’s Bend. As Wilder herself says about the play, “Its not about the quilts; its about the people." The quilts, the ferry, the land all figure as powerful images in this play which traces three generations of Gee’s Bend women from 1939 to 2002.Above: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Right:Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library of Congress,Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 2
  3. 3. UP CLOSE: A Playwright’s Inspiration Mary Lee Bendolph, on whom the character of Sadie is based. Read the Pulitzer Prize winning article about her life at year/2000/feature-THE CHARACTERS OF GEE’S BEND writing/works/.Time: 1939, 1965, 2002Place: Gees Bend, AlabamaCharacters:Sadie Ages from 15-79. Alice’s daughter, Nella’s sister, Macon’s wife. "Some people Ambitious, literate, intelligent, focused, an independent dreamer. have a good life. But I had a roughMacon Ages from 25-51. Sadie’s husband. A dreamer and show-off who increasingly loses hope as life. But I thank economic depression and ill health set in. Takes his frustrations God that he out on Sadie physically. helped me comeNella Ages from 17-81. Alice’s daughter, Sadie’s sister. through, and I Perpetually single, dreams big, but has little to show for it. aint dead." Relies on Sadie for many things, economically and socially. —MARY LEE BENDOLPHAlice 30s to 50s. Sadie and Nella’s mother. Independent, wise, grounded.Asia Sadie’s daughter. Practical, loving, and changing with a modern world. Above: Mary Lee Bendolph. Above left: Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library of Congress, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 3
  4. 4. THE ACTION OF THE PLAY "You know my soul looks back and wonder/ How we UP CLOSE: got over." Scenic Design Scenic Designer Tim Jones, who used watercolors for his sketches, chose the Gees Bend is written in three parts, present- Sadies vision is of being wrapped and palette for the set from the ing three different times in the recent sewn in a quilt and put in the river to actual quilts of Gee’s Bend. history of the community and of one float; today, she says, she just let herself He wanted to create a womans life in particular. Basing the play in float, even though shes scared of the feeling that was both research and extensive interviews as well as river. Rivers are potent emblems of ‘homey and homely.’ The her own artistry, Elyzabeth Wilder creates an change and development, natural cycles, actual panels will measure evolving set of issues rooted in specific and journeys. All of these are relevant as approximately 4’ x 18’. experience. By anchoring the play in 1939, Sadie starts the play; after all, her lifes 1965, and 2002, Wilder explores key points journey is just beginning. in the development of the community and The 1937 New York several times when the Times article about outside world Gees Bend lines the recognized and walls of the old tenant impacted isolated Gees cabin that Sadie Bend and its residents. Pettway lives in with her family. Newspaper Part One: 1939 serves as wallpaper and The play opens with 15- insulation in these old year-old Sadie near the plank wall cabins. Sadie river. The river, and reads the closing quote getting across the river, provide a strong of the article, "I got more confidence in image throughout the action, doubling the my land than I had in my own wife," a Alabama River with the River Jordan in the quotation that highlights two crucial spiritual sense and the Atlantic Ocean in aspects of the play: the value of the land terms of the Middle Passage of slavery: "You and marriage. know my soul looks back and wonder/ How we got over." But the cabin will soon be replaced by a new house, for Sadies family is building Sadies vision is personal, but visions were a one of the "Roosevelt" houses. As the traditional part of worship in Gees Bend, sisters tease about the skills necessary to signifying the conversion necessary prior to be a wife, Macons name is mentioned church membership. and which girl he may be interested in, although Alice says hes too old for them.Above: Set panel by Tim Jones. Right: Gee’sBend, 1937. Library of Congress, ArthurRothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 4
  5. 5. UP CLOSE: The Music of Gee’s BendTHE ACTION OF THE PLAY CONTINUED Music is an important part of the play Gees Bend, and Wilder scripts specific songs into certain moments of the action. The play opens to theAlices concern is a bit late, however, since Part Two: 1965 sound of womens voicesSadie is already having a secret romance Nine scenes form the center of the play, with singing "How We Got Over"with Macon, a successful young farmer Sadie now 41 and her sister still teasing about as Sadie presents her baptis-who wants to marry her and build her a finding a man. Sadies dreams are now of mal soliloquy by the river. Part Two opens withhouse. As a promise of their future, he drowning, a disturbing suggestion. Macon "Somebodys Knocking ongives her a key. Her mother does not brings home bad news about the truck, Yo Door." The transitionbelieve in keys, and Sadie adopts that view another expense now that the dam has put into scene 5 of Part Two,of having an open house. The key becomes his best land under water (another drowning when Sadie returns home after Bloody Sunday inanother central image in the play. image). Selma, uses "Oh, Lord, Im on My Way." Scene 8 of PartIt comes as no real surprise to us when In Camden the next day, Sadie sees Dr. Two, the last scene withSadie becomes pregnant, although she is Martin Luther King, Jr. drink from the Macon, ends with "You Cant “whites-only” water fountain, and as she Hide [Gods Got Your Num-surprised and sad to have to leave school. ber]." Scene 2 of Part ThreeWhen she marries Macon and goes to their goes to take a drink, too, an angry Macon uses "If Anybody Asks Younew house, she takes a wedding quilt she appears to take her home: "What you doing Who I Am," and the lastpieced. Macons pride in the land is strong is dangerous." Macons response takes the scene uses "When All Gods form of violence; he beats Sadie: Children Get Together"; theand he explains what having it means to last verse used in the playhim with a memory from his childhood, a begins, "When the whitememory involving a beating. This is the SADIE. I just wanted a drink of water. folks/ And the colored folks/plays second mention of a beating, an Get together.…"occurrence that takes a number of MACON. Hope it was worth it.different turns as the action develops. SADIE. It was worth the beating you gave me. MACON. You earned that beating. You know I Pictured above: Sweet Honey in the aint never raised a hand to you cept when Rock. Left: Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library you be needing it. of Congress, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 5
  6. 6. THE ACTION OF THE PLAY CONTINUED "My life feel like it my own again, Lord. Like I live forUP CLOSE: me.” — SADIEPre-Show ActivityListen to Sweet Honey in To Sadie, a voter registration card "means this man would keep her down, not, likethe Rock’s anniversary CD that I count for something. That what I think Dr. King, lift her up. But Macon changes,called "Twenty-five" and too, from the man who in spite says of matters." Macon disagrees, feeling that herdiscuss the power of the actions make it seem that he cant control Sadies quilts, "Oughta burn em up, themvarious types of song. The his wife: "Well, just cause you got a vote out ugly things" to the ailing man whofirst song is a repeatedline from a poem by June there, dont mean you got a vote in here." celebrates that she didnt sell theirJordan, "we are the ones, The two face off about her going to the wedding quilt, "Glad you aint sold emweve been waiting…/ we Selma march (now known as Bloody all…You do good" and explains, "I put thatare the ones weve been Sunday), and Macon decrees, "You walk out lock on to keep you safe. You dont knowwaiting for." (Discuss that door, dont you come back." Sadie that, but thats what I did." How towhat difference the addi- walks out—and into another beating in protect versus how to fulfill is a crucialtion of the "for" makes in Selma during the march over the bridge. The issue in the play.the meaning of the line bruised and battered Sadie returns home toand its implications.) find the key turned in the lock. Macons death sends Sadie back to theThe second song is swamp where we first Compare Macons view met her, the one placeadapted from a traditional about Sadies actions withAfrican (Ituri) chant—no those that Nella reports "We didnt close the where she can admit, "My life feel like it mylyrics, but the syllableswhen sung can "unite a from the white sheriff ferry because they were own again, Lord. Like Icommunity and call down about stopping the ferry live for me. “spirits." to Gees Bend: "The sheriff black; we closed it say they didnt cut off the because they forgot Part Three: 2002The third song is a modern ferry because we wasprotest song "Battered black. Say its because we they were black." The issue 37 years later after the plays openingEarth," one that uses the forgot we was black." —ATTRIBUTED TO CAMDEN is again one of locks and"running away" imagery There is an implicit "place" SHERIFF LUMMIE JENKINS keys, for Sadies middle-of traditional spirituals. for each race and each aged daughter Asia is gender, an assumption concerned that theAnd the fourth song is a about hierarchy and privilege, but in 1965, proposed return of the ferry will threatentraditional spiritual, "the times, they are achanging.""Motherless Child," pow- the safety of the community; they willerfully performed by this need to lock their doors. Sadie likes thetalented group of women. The Macon and Sadie scenes shows a ferry-less life: "They left us alone all these complicated relationship developing over years. Us on one side and them on the time and the tensions that changing other." But she is worried about the traditions put on the couple. As Macon gets change, about the memories locks bring sicker, Sadie must choose escape or back, about the fact that "the river cantRight: Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library ofCongress, Arthur Rothstein, responsibility, and it is not an easy choice — protect us no more."photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 6
  7. 7. UP CLOSE:THE ACTION OF THE PLAY CONTINUED Scenic DesignThe isolation brings safety, but Gees Sadie will not bless such an action;Bend is not unreachable; she also has a instead, she buys the land. If$2000 check from a white man who disoriented Nella remembers only thecame to her door buying quilts, saying past, so, in a way, does Sadie, whothey were art. Sadie sold the green quilt prefers to keep the community as itshe made for herself has been; the ferryand Macon in 1965, “She had a little quilt, not is a symbol ofthough Asia protests, progress, of access"I loved that quilt." She a big quilt. And made it in both directions,and Nella pack for a out of red, green and of less "safety." "Itrip to the museum dont think that yellow...Everyday sheexhibit of the Gees ferry ever coming,"Bend quilts. Seeing the would spread that quilt she says, "but if itquilts on the walls as down and say, “ya’ll come do, I be ready," andart only reminds Sadie over here, and I’m going she digs up the key Set panel by Tim Jones for the Kansas Citythat the quilts are life, she buried years"Our blood and our to tell you my life, a story before. Repertory Theatre’s production of Gee’stears melted into the about my life.” Bend. Mr. Jonesseams." -ARLONZIA PETTWAY, WHO LEARNED wanted the set panels HOW TO QUILT AT AGE 13, DISCUSSING to reflect the central themes and images ofAsia, who cannot pass HER GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, WHO WAS the play.the quilting tradition BROUGHT TO THIS COUNTRY AS A SLAVE.on to her uninteresteddaughter now tells her mother that shewants to sell her land and move toSelma where she works. Left : Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library of Congress, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 7
  8. 8. THE ART OF NECESSITY BY THOMAS CANFIELD A brief history of Gee’sUP CLOSE: Bend, Alabama and thoseReal Voices of Gee’s Bend who live there. Like kaleidoscopic portraits in a family album After the cotton market crashed during chronicling adversity, struggle and triumph, the Great Depression, the widow of a the extraordinary quilts created by merchant who had extended credit to the generations of women in Gee’s Bend, families of Gee’s Bend foreclosed on the Alabama, are a remarkably personal, community in 1932. Arriving on horse- picturesque record of their community’s back, armed collection agents took all the resilience under difficult circumstances. In a Gee’s Benders’ possessions, including materialistic age of manufactured food, livestock, farming tools and seeds. commodities, the fact that the deep-rooted art of quilting has endured in Gee’s Bend is a Only emergency rations distributed by the testament not only to the community’s Red Cross alleviated the near-starvation "They took devotion to tradition but also the result of that families suffered that winter. In 1934- prolonged geographical segregation from 35, supplementary aid followed when the everything the modern world at large. Federal Emergency Relief Administration provided small farm loans as well as and left Secluded on three sides within a massive, seeds, implements and livestock. As part people to oxbow-shaped curve of the Alabama River in of Roosevelt’s New Deal in the late 1930s one of the nation’s poorest regions, Gee’s and 1940s, the government acquired die." Bend is about 30 miles southwest of Selma 10,000 acres of the land and made no- —ARLONZIA and seven miles directly across the river interest loans to Gee’s Bend residents, from the Wilcox County seat of Camden. The allowing them to purchase their small PETTWAY ON MRS. community, spanning an area five miles long farms. Approximately 100 Roosevelt RENTZS 1932 and eight miles wide, comprises Project houses were erected, along with FORECLOSURE OF approximately 750 African-American as a general store, cotton gin, blacksmith citizens. Their earliest ancestors were shop, sawmill, school and clinic.LOANS TO GEES BEND brought from North Carolina as slaves in FARMERS 1816 by Joseph Gee, who established a The result was a self-sufficient, cotton plantation there. Ownership of the landowning community of African- plantation changed twice before the Civil Americans who were marked by a strong War. Mark H. Pettway, the plantation’s final sense of identity and an indomitable spirit antebellum owner, marched an additional fostered in the face of hardship. In the 100 or more slaves there in 1845-46. They 1930s, Farm Security Administration walked over 700 miles from North Carolina photographers captured the isolation of to Alabama. After emancipation, the freed the residents, and the Library of Congress black population remained on the land, in recorded traditional gospel music in Gee’s virtually unchanged circumstances, as share- Bend during the following decade. croppers and tenant farmers. Many of their descendants retain the Pettway name to thisAbove: Arlonzia Pettway. Right : Gee’sBend, 1937. Library of Congress, Arthur day.Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 8
  9. 9. UP CLOSE: Real Voices of Gee’s BendTHE ART OF NECESSITY CONTINUEDAlthough the hamlet’s name was officially As a result, those few Gee’s Bend residentschanged to Boykin in 1949 (the same year who owned cars had to drive approximately "I came overthe first post office was built), locals still 100 miles round trip to get to Camden.refer to it as Gee’s Bend, as do the road Reportedly, the county sheriff at the time here to Geessigns. Electricity did not arrive until 1964. stated that “We didnt close the ferry because Bend to tell you,Only one road, unpaved until 1967, leads they were black. We closed it because theyout of town. Gee’s Bend had no telephone forgot they were black.” Today, while the you areservice or running water until the mid- town has four churches, it has only one post somebody."1970s. office and a grocery store. Such basic facilities —DR. MARTIN as the school, hospital and police station areBecause of its isolation, Gee’s Bend was located miles away, a fact that has only served LUTHER KING, JR. INreferred to as “Alabama Africa” by other to encourage the ardent self-reliance of the GEES BEND, ALABAMAblacks in the deep south. Yet the Benders over time. Their isolation prevailedcommunity’s independence not only for 44 years, until a new ferry began operatinghelped to preserve the distinct traditions in September of 2006.of quilting, story telling and gospel music;it also led the people of Gee’s Bend to In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke atplay a notable role in the civil rights Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Gee’s Bend.movement. A few days later, he spoke outside the jail in Camden. Many Benders who attended wereDuring the voting rights activism of the subsequently jailed. Inspired by the strengthearly 1960s, many Benders rode the of the community, King used the geographicalunreliable ferry across the river to register divide posed by river as a rallying point,at the Camden courthouse only to face motivating several residents to join him in thearmed law enforcement, tear gas and jail. famous October 30 march from Selma toThose Gee’s Bend residents who were Montgomery. After King’s assassination inproperty owners could not be evicted for 1968, mules from Gee’s Bend pulled thetheir actions, yet further retaliation came wagon carrying his casket through Atlanta.with the termination of the ferry serviceand loss of jobs in 1962, part of an overalleffort to halt black civil rights workersfrom traveling between Camden and Above: Martin Luther King, Jr. Left: Protesters march in Selma, Alabama.Gee’s Bend. Library of Congress. Gee’s Bend Pg. 9
  10. 10. THE ART OF NECESSITY CONTINUEDUP CLOSE:Real Voices of Gee’s Bend“I was one of the firstladies from here who went to the court- be a In 1966, Francis X. Walter, an Episcopal Some artists fashioned “britches quilts” outregistered voter...We minister and civil rights worker, developed of castoff clothes, such as over-alls, trouserstood before tear gas the idea of marketing local talent to provide legs and shirt tails, often employing suchand guns, which they economic empowerment for area quilters. materials to keep memories of deceasedused to keep us from Farming came largely to a close when a relatives alive. Yet until the outside world federal dam construction project, completed began applauding their quilts as art, the the courthouse. We just south of Gee’s Bend in 1970, flooded creators viewed them as merely functional were put in jail. We thousands of acres of the area’s most fertile items. Old quilts were burned to repel were...some of us, farming land. Nearly one-third of the women mosquitoes, or used to mop up motor oil whipped. We were in Gee’s Bend joined the Freedom Quilting and protect automobiles from thetreated awful there. I Bee, an offshoot of the civil rights elements.stayed in jail three or movement designed to boost income and four nights.” foster community development by selling Today, the quilters of Gee’s Bend have —NETTIE YOUNG their work to outsiders. This cooperative, garnered nationwide acknowledgment and centered in the nearby town of Rehoboth, are being celebrated for their provided some financial relief to the accomplishments. Gee’s Bend quilts have community. In the late 1960s, Gee’s Bend appeared in museum exhibitions from New quilts were featured in Vogue and Life York to Houston and San Francisco. Books, magazines, and local artists received a long- articles, short stories and films have high- term commercial contract to sew for several lighted the unique stories of the quilts and department stores. their creators who, for the first time in their lives, have a real income from their The quilts of Gee’s Bend reflect an artistry work. In 2006, the U.S. Postal Service born from utility. Their beauty emerges issued a series of Gee’s Bend stamps. This from, and in spite of, an inherited material recognition has helped to revive a once- dearth reaching back to the days of slavery. dying community and the nearly-lost art ofNettie Young, who received her Many Benders had little or no heat and lived quilting that has been passed down forfirst pair of shoes at age twelve, in barely furnished, ramshackle homes, so generations from mothers anda member of the Gee’s Bend quilts provided warmth and protection from grandmothers to daughters and grand-Quilt Cooperative. the wind, cold and dust. While Gee’s Bend daughters. quilts look like Minimalist art, their earliest creators were actually inspired by the news- Thomas Canfield, who holds a Ph.D. in English with a specialty in Elizabethan drama, is working on his second paper and catalog collages pasted on their M.A. in theatre history and dramatic literature at UMKC. He walls to provide insulation. Quilts were often was the dramaturg for last season’s Rep production of King made of limited available materials, Lear, and for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Dr. Canfield is also an including feed and flour sacks, rags and English instructor at Grantham University and the tobacco pouches. dramaturg for this season’s UMKC Theatre production of The Country Wife, William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy.Above: The stamps of Gee’s Bend. Gee’s Bend Pg. 10
  11. 11. UP CLOSE: Seek Some Sources Trace some of WildersAN INTERVIEW WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT—ELYZABETH WILDER inspiration for the play Gees Bend by reading the LosHow did you get your start? Do you ever have ‘writer’s block’? Angeles Times series calledI first started out as an actor in the theatre. I did "Crossing Over," written by J. Oh, I have moments of writer’s block all thelocal children’s theatre growing up, starting at R. Moehringer, a series which time. Actually, following the original opening of won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize forabout the fourth grade. That’s really when I first Gee’s Bend I really struggled, for almost a year,fell in love with the theatre and playwriting was a Feature Writing. It is available to write anything after that. It felt like there online at: http://natural transition. I wrote my first full length play were a lot of new expectations that I hadn’t I was about 17 and had the good fortune of experienced before both from other people buthaving it read in a reading series in New York and Also available online is the probably more so even from myself. And sortthen it ended up being produced after that. 1937 New York Times article of not knowing how to follow that up. And it that presents the myth ofAnother great program that I went through was at took me awhile to work through that. I feel like Gees Bend that thethe Alabama Shakespeare Festival. They have a I’m always doing something that contributes to government sought to purveyprogram called the Young Southern Writer’s my writing even if it’s not actually writing. So if I as it worked to pass legislationProject and I was in their very first workshop. So I hit a bump in the road usually I allow myself to that would remedy the ills ofjust feel like I was fortunate all along having a lot take the time to put it down, to go back to do the tenant farming system. Itof encouragement. Having grown up doing more research, to read, to take a road trip. is illustrated with a series oftheatre, I had a good background and a good sense Seeing other people’s plays and going to the Arthur Rothstein photographs.of the way theatre works. And I think that helped a Get the article through Pro- theatre is always inspiring.lot when I made that transition into playwriting. As Quest Historical Newspapers,far as writing is concerned, I feel like I’ve always "The Big World at Last What is your writing process? Reaches Gees Bend," by Johnwritten. Growing up in the South, the south is such I don’t have any really great routine. I probably Temple Graves II (August 22,a storytelling culture that it is a very natural part of should have more of a routine. [Laughs.] I tend 1937), New York Times, I grew up. Some of my earliest memories are to write the best early in the morning or late at SM12.sitting at the feet of my great-grandmother night. So I try to be at my desk by 8:00am andlistening to her tell stories. try and get in a couple of hours of writing first thing in the morning and then come back to it.When did you know you wanted to be a play-wright? What advice would you give to young writers?I think the first time I really saw my work on it its I think the best thing we can do as artists is befeet. The wonderful thing about the theatre is the surrounded by art. That doesn’t always meanimmediacy of going to see a play. I’ve written for going to see a play or reading a play but alsotelevision and I’ve written for screenplays and I surrounding yourself with other art. There aredon’t get to experience my work with the stories to be told in the ballet, in modern dance,audience. But with the theatre, you have a chance in opera. Also in visual art. I find a lot of timesto be there and watch their reactions and to see an image will direct my work. Every good photo-how your work directly affects people. I think, graph has a story. I encourage people to lookvery early on, that was what was so compelling to around them. Another great way to find storiesme. is to just talk to your parents and grandparents. Above left: Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder. Gee’s Bend Pg. 11 Gee’s Bend Pg. 11
  12. 12. THE WOMEN — AND THE QUILTS — OF GEE’S BENDUP CLOSE: “[The Gees Bend quilts] expandReal Voices of Gee’s Bend the sense of what art can be." –PETER MARZIO, DIRECTOR OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, HOUSTON Throughout much of the twentieth century, The "Quilts of Gee’s Bend" exhibition has making quilts was considered a domestic received a tremendous of acclaim responsibility for women in Gees Bend. As beginning at its showing in Houston, then young girls, many of the women trained or at the Whitney Museum of American Art apprenticed in their craft with their in New York and the other museums on mothers, female relatives, or friends; other its twelve-city American tour. Newsweek, quilters, however, have been virtually self- National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, taught. Women with large families often Art in America, CBS News Sunday made dozens upon dozens of quilts over Morning, PBS’s NewsHour with Jim the course of their lives. Lehrer, the Martha Stewart Living television show, House and Garden, “I get some fabrics The women consider the process of Oprah’s O magazine, and Country Home and I’ll be thinking "piecing" the quilt "top" to be highly magazine are among the hundreds of personal. In Gee’s Bend, the top—the side print and broadcast media organizations about quilting with that faces up on the bed—is always pieced that have celebrated the quilts and themy eyes closed. With by a quilter working alone and reflects a history of this unique town. Art critics my eyes resting, I’ll singular artistic vision. The subsequent worldwide have compared the quilts to see a quilt pattern. process of “quilting” the quilt—sewing the works of important artists such as together the completed top, the batting Henri Matisse and Paul Klee. The NewI’ll be thinking about (stuffing), and the back—is sometimes then York Times called the quilts "some of the it for a long good performed communally, among small most miraculous works of modern artwhile. It comes right groups of women. America has produced." The Museum ofinto your mind, what Fine Arts, Houston, is currently preparing Most of the quilters were featured in the a second major museum exhibition and the quilt will be.” book Gees Bend: The Women And Their tour of Gee’s Bend quilts, premiered in —LUCY MINGO Quilts (Tinwood, 2002), where extensive 2006. biographical information can be found. In 2003, with assistance from the Tinwood The town’s women developed a distinctive, organizations, all the living quilters of bold, and sophisticated quilting style based Gee’s Bend — more than fifty women — on traditional American (and African founded the Gee’s Bend Quilters American) quilts, but with a geometric Collective to serve as the exclusive means simplicity reminiscent of Amish quilts and of selling and marketing the quilts being modern art. produced by the women of the Bend. Every quilt sold by the Gee’s Bend Quilt The women of Gee’s Bend passed their skills Collective is unique, individually and aesthetic down through at least six produced, and authentic — each quilt is generations to the present. signed by the quilter and labeled with a serial number. Above: Lucy Mingo. Above right: A current Gee’s Bend Pg. 12 photo of the Quilt Cooperative.
  13. 13. UP CLOSE: Real Voices of Gee’s Bend "Quilts were aLITERATURE CONNECTIONS consolation to me. I didnt haveQUILTING TERMINOLOGY so much worryBacking—The back or bottom layer of a quilt ‘sandwich’ consisting of three layers. when I wasBackstitch—A stitch made by inserting the needle at the midpoint of a preceding stitch so making quilts. Ithat the stitches overlap by half-lengths. just kept my mindBasting—Long stitches used to hold fabric layers or seams in place temporarily and usually on the quilts.”removed after final sewing. —NETTIE YOUNGBatting—Cotton, wool, or synthetic fiber wadded into rolls or sheets, used for lining quilts.In Gee’s Bend the batting would be cotton picked from the fields.Binding—The finishing edge put on the outside of a quilt, enclosing the three raw edgesformed by the backing, batting and top.Muslin—A plain weave, cotton, bleached or unbleached fabric used as a backing. If muslinwas not available, quilters in Gee’s Bend used what they had available such as flour sacks..Piecing—The action of sewing pieces together to make a whole.Quilt—A cover comprising a top, a filler and a back secured by stitches or tying. Nettie Young, born 1917. "H"variationQuilt Lining—The back of the quilt. (quiltmakers name: "Milky Way"), 1971.Quilt Top—The usually decorative uppermost layer of a quilt.Quilting—The act of stitching or the stitches that hold the three layers together—the top,filler and back.Quilter’s Frame—Four strips of wood that supports the layers for quilting.Thimble—A protective finger covering made of plastic, metal or leather used to protect the Above left: The quilters of Gee’s Bend.fingers when sewing or pushing the needle through the layers of the quilt. Note the pattern of the headscarf worn by one of the quilters. Gee’s Bend Pg. 13
  14. 14. IMAGES AND ISSUES IN GEE’S BEND The river, the locked and unlocked door, the key, the quilts, beatings, the drink of water, whats sold and unsold—UP CLOSE: all these plot elements serve asScenic Design potent images for character,Scenic Designer Tim Jones action and idea. Add to theused the river, which both following list when you see thedivides and unites the play:residents of Gee’s Bend, asthe central visual anchor ofthe set design. Below, Mr. THE RIVER: BEATINGS:Jones uses a set panel to •Geographically defines Gees Bend and divides •The beating, too, reflects marital and genderexplore one of the central it from Camden (portrayed as "them," white issues as well as political and racial issues—element of the play — the society); the ferry is another image that links all about "place" in society.home. to the river. •Compare Macons story about deciding not •The place of baptism in the first scene (baptism to pick up the pennies, a story of pride and coming to mean initiation in several senses). self-assertion despite his fathers beating, •The ongoing flow of the womens lives and with Sadies stand about civil rights and traditions being handed Macons beating of her down. and explanations why. THE LOCKED AND THE DRINK OF WATER: UNLOCKED DOOR: •Dr. Kings drinking from •For Alice and then for the whites-only fountain Sadie, the open door is is a civil rights stand, and the sign of community, Sadies similar action is openness. For Macon, about civil rights and the key/lock is a way to personal rights, as Macon keep his family safe— tries to stop her—"I and safety becomes a havent got my drink of major issues for him water yet," she says, during Part Twos civil where the water is far rights events. For Asia more than simple water. in Part Three it is a protection against theft, •The drinking fountain water also links to the from the threat a new ferry may pose. river image—all the water. •Being locked in or locked out also represents the Gees Bend black residents place in the WHATS SOLD AND UNSOLD: larger society. When the ferry is stopped, they •The land is rented, then bought; possession are effectively "locked in" at Gees Bend. means empowerment to Macon and the Macons locking Sadie out after the march community, yet with the lock and dam the directly echoes the Bloody Sunday action of government seizes/"buys" back half his denying black citizens rights—two "locked land. Compare Mrs. Rentzs seizure of doors." Notice that at the end the lock doesnt property. work, but Sadie goes to get the key. •Asia wants to sell her land (her daddys land), but Sadie says no; she buys it instead. •The quilts are sold for various reasons and for various prices until they are valued as art.Set design by Tim Jones for the KansasCity Repertory Theatre. Above right:Gee’s Bend, 1937. Library of Congress,Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Gee’s Bend Pg. 14
  15. 15. UP CLOSE: Connecting to the Past— The Grandparent/Elder Project Learning history from realLITERATURE CONNECTIONS people involved in real events brings life to history. The Grandparent/Elder Project provides a means to learn about the twentieth century from real peopleArnett, Paul. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt, Tinwood Books, 2006. and primary sources. A 1913 New York TimesArnett, William. The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: Masterpieces from a Lost Place, Tinwood newspaper provides a view Books, 2002. of the world on the brink of a World War. An interview with a grandparent orCallahan, Nancy. The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement, significant elder provides a Fire Ant Books, 2005. human face for life in the twentieth century. ThroughCubbs, Joanne. Mary Lee Bendolph, Gee’s Bend Quilts, and Beyond, Tinwood Books, researching primary and secondary sources, your 2006. students become conversant with significantHicks, Kyra. Black Threads: An African-American Quilting Sourcebook, McFarland, 2002. aspects of twentieth century history.Monroe, Lissa. Just How I Picture It in My Mind: Contemporary African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, River City Publishing, 2006. See the website below for detailed information and lesson plans for The Grand-Ringgold, Faith. Tar Beach, Dragonfly Books, 1996. parent/Elder Project.Ringgold, Faith. Faith Ringgold: A View From the Studio, Bunker Hill, 2005. http:/ learn/lessons/98/grand/ overview.htmlTobin, Jacqueline. Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, Anchor Books, 2000.Whyte, Mary. Alfreda’s World, Gibbs Smith, 2005. Gee’s Bend Pg. 15
  16. 16. QUILTS AS IMAGE IN GEE’S BEND “What you see coming from Gee’s Bend is not accidental...It was a very conscious thing andUP CLOSE: it’s been passed down for atQuilting as Folk Art least five or six generations.”For millennia, the spinning and —WILLIAM ARNETTweaving of cloth has been amajor part of a womans In a way, the action of Gees Bend is quilted, a Part Two opens with quilting and again thedomestic scene. Over time, fine series of times and people stitched together by link between quilting and families, and Sadieneedlework came to define what place and action, picking up patterns from out- mentions her first sale of a quilt—at theit meant to be a lady, and duringthe Crusades European women side events as well as from the inner rhythms of general store for $2 worth of fabric. Theleft on estates pooled their individual lives. The actual quilters of Gees Bend sisters then huddle beneath a quilt in theefforts and created some of the do not copy precise patterns; they figure them church as they wait for Dr. King to arrive. Inworlds finest tapestries. Fancy out in their heads—that is the most frequent the next scene in Camden the sisters mentionneedlework, embroidery, and explanation when they are asked about their that a man is coming around buying quilts, andsmocking are still valued skills, patterning. Watching the various mothers in the after Macon beats her, Sadie in the followingand historians often turn to play care for their families gives a repeated scene stacks up her quilts for sale (she meanstextiles to explore life in early pattern with business in every sense).America. variations, as in the Two scenes later, she, best African American Nella, and Alice are by theQuilting is an old art, one that quilts. How Alice tries road side with their quiltstakes part of its provenance frombattle, since quilted fabric was to guide her daughters to be sold for $10 each.used as padding under armor can be compared to Sadie has ten quilts; in theand chain mail. But quilting also Sadies values and next scene, as she returnsanswers a domestic need, the how she tries to to say goodbye, she hasneed to provide warmth. impart them to Asia, $90. In the next scene weDesigner quilts are like fancy who in turn wants to see that the unsold quilt isneedlework, but many quilts are provide certain the wedding quilt andpractical, not simply pretty. The potential for her own that Sadie has stayed tohomes of the working class and (unseen) daughter. nurse Macon. In the sceneagricultural workers are oftenthose most exposed to the after his burial, she iselements and least provided Where the quilts wrapped in the quilt shewith amenities of progress, so made from his work appear is important inthat a fireplace can be used for clothes. understanding theircooking and heating long afterappliances are available in varying import— personal, economic, In the first scene of partsociety houses. Quilts are made aesthetic. In Part One, three, Sadie has sold aof whats available, the scraps scene two, Alice is quilt to an art collector forleft over or the worn out fabricwith no other use, the flour or making a quilt top $2000, and she and Asiafertilizer sacking given another while Nella prepares discuss the value of thelife—such quilts begin from the stuffing. Sewing is quilts to the collector andsavaging, then take form as mind discussed as one of to the family. Then theand needle and fabric meet. women continue that the skills a woman needs to sustain a family. TwoSometimes, as at Gees Bend, discussion as they travel to the museumnecessity fosters art. scenes later, for the first time Alice tells Sadie to start piecing a quilt just prior to telling Sadie exhibit of the quilts. Yet Asia, who says dont about her pregnancy. The two activities become sell the quilts, will sell her land. Sadie linked, quilting and family. In scene 5 Sadie continues to quilt at the end, covering Nella brings that first quilt, her wedding quilt, with her with a quilt and promising to teach her to sew. Set design by Tim Jones for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Above right: Quilt to her new home with Macon. by Lola Pettway "Housetop" blocks. Gee’s Bend Pg. 16
  17. 17. UP CLOSE: Is it Art?CLASSROOM CONNECTIONSClassroom Quilt sequence of the event into several steps,The quilts of Gee’s Bend provide more than which they will depict on the quilt The quilters of Gee’s Bendjust warmth. They offer mementos of squares. For example, if they were say that they neverindividuals’ lives. Learning the stories of focusing on the Great Depression, one considered their quiltsthese mementos can bring square might depict tenant works of art or consideredcontext to the history of Gee’s farmers working fields, themselves artists. ButBend and of the American what makes these quilts another would portraySouth in general. different from a bedcov- these farmers borrowing ering we could purchase on credit and paying back at the mall?Have students create a class- loans, the next squareroom quilt portraying historic would convey Black Assign students to studyevents and their effect on the Tuesday, the start of the various artists of the 20thGee’s Bend community. Quilts Great Depression, and so century such as Markcan be constructed with paper on. Have student groups Rothko (whose work isor fabric (using iron-on sheets brainstorm how these pictured above), Barnettof material for the individual events might be visually Newman, Paul Klee,squares.) Louise Nevelson and communicated on quilt Joseph Albers and com- squares. Students canAfter introducing the history of pare their works to the draw or paint images and quilts of Gee’s Bend. HowGee’s Bend to your students, also include words to do these works comparehave students brainstorm the convey meaning. aesthetically? How do thevarious historical events and processes of the artiststheir effect on the Gee’s Bend Next, groups will create the compare? Are these quiltscommunity (i.e. plantation life quilt squares portraying different from otherand slavery, the Civil War, the each step of the sequence quilts? If so, how? HaveGreat Depression, New Deal on fabric or paper. Have students research andpolicies and the Civil Rights discuss their viewpoints. them assemble these quiltMovement.) squares in chronological order and present their Above: No. 61 (Rust and Blue) by MarkAssign a group of students to historical event quilts to the Rothko, 1953. Center left: Costume sketches for the Kansas City Repertoryeach historical event and entire class. Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend.instruct them to break down the Above left: Quilt by Loretta Bennett Courtesy of the Tinwood Alliance. Gee’s Bend Pg. 17
  18. 18. When: Gee’s Bend Timeline FOR FUTHER RESEARCH USA GEE’S BEND For more information on SLAVERY ‹1816 Gee’s Bend consult the Joseph Gee following resources: purchases land and starts a cotton plantation. ‹1845 Mark Pettway buys Film Resources: the plantation and "With Fingers of Love: Economic Development and the Civil Rights Movement" (27 minutes, Films brings 100 more for the Humanities, 1995). Treats the Freedom Quilting Bee slaves to work. The slaves walk from "The Quiltmakers of Gees Bend" (80 minutes, Alabama Public Television, 2004). Interviews North Carolina to quiltmakers and discusses Gees Bend history in context of the museum exhibits Wilcox County. CIVIL WAR ‹1861 Book Resources: Mark Pettway dies, Most books are available from Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at or from Tin- willing his property wood at (which donates proceeds to the to his widow and Quilters Cooperative at Gees Bend) then to his son. The Quilts of Gees Bend (Atlanta: Tinwood Books) RECONSTRUCTION ‹1865 Gees Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt (Atlanta: Tinwood Books) After the Civil War many freed Pettway Signs and Symbols: African Images in African American Quilts (Atlanta: Tinwood Books) slaves become tenants on the Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South (Atlanta: Tinwood Books), Volumes plantation. 1 and 2 Exhibition Catalogue The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: masterpieces from a Lost Place Whitney GREAT DEPRESSION ‹1929-32 Gee’s Bend: The Women and their Quilts (Tinwood, 2002) Price of cotton falls to pennies per The Freedom Quilting Bee: Folk Art and the Civil Rights Movement (2005) pound. ‹1932 “Slave-Made Quilts in Ante-Bellum America” in Always There: The African-American Presence in American Quilts (1992) Collectors foreclose on Gee’s Bend debtors; most suffer near-starvation. Music Resources: How We Got Over: Sacred Songs of Gees Bend, 2 CD set of songs by quilters, with songs recorded in ‹1934-1935 1940s and recently. Federal Emergency Relief Administration Sweet Honey in the Rock, Twenty-five, Rykodisc, 1988. provides help. The net worth of a Gee’s Bend family is $28.Right: Tenant farmers during the Great Depression. Gee’s Bend Pg. 18
  19. 19. When: Gee’s Bend Timeline WWII ‹1937-1940 The Roosevelt Project Houses are constructed. Buildings include a school, a store, a cotton gin, a mill, a clinic and 100 new homes. ‹1945 Residents offered federal loans to buy farmland. CIVIL ‹ 1962 RIGHTS Congress orders ERA construction of dam and lock at Miller’s ferry to flood the Alabama RiverRESOURCES CONTINUED at Gee’s Bend. ‹1965Web Sites: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaches in Gee’s Bend. Ferry servicePhotos of Gees Bend, 1937-45. from Gee’s Bend is terminated.http:/ Library of Congress, "The Learning Page," The Grandparent/Elder Project. ‹1966 The Freedom Bee is organized.Basic overview of the community. You can see pictures of each member of the quilt collective. ‹1966 The road leading toAn article about the Gees Bend ferry written in 1999, as the ferry was first planning its return. In Gee’s Bend is paved forreality, the ferry wasnt made operational until summer, 2006. the first time. article came out after the second exhibit of quilts was revealed. ‹2003 TODAY The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, partnering with Atlanta’sThis has photos from the second exhibit, which debuted at the Houston Museum of Art -- It in- Tinwood Alliance,cludes some of the "newer" quilts. Go to "images" on the site. exhibits 70 Gee’s Bend “quilt masterpieces.” has images of off the quilts from the original exhibit. ‹2003 The Gee’s Bend Quilter’s This Learning Guide was compiled with the gracious assistance of Dr. Susan Willis from the Collective is founded. Alabama Shakespeare Festival and Prithi Kanakamedala from the Cleveland Playhouse. ‹2006 A ferry begins to operate across the Alabama River to Gee’s Bend. Gee’s Bend Pg. 19