"Gee's Bend," coming to Taproot Theatre, lovingly pieces together quilters' life stories // Fwd: Tie-in to past TAM exhibit
Seattle Times reports that Gee's Bend is going to be a play.
The Arts | "Gee's Bend," coming to Taproot Theatre, lovingly pieces
together quilters' life stories | Seattle Times Newspaper
"Gee's Bend," coming to Taproot Theatre, lovingly pieces together
quilters' life stories
By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
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
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
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."
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