By Jordan Wright (Photo/Chris Banks)
“I had a vision. Like the story passed down by my grandfather,” says Sadie Pettway. Though she wasn’t a Pettway yet, at least not till she met the smooth-talking Macon, a man with dreams as big as hers and a determination to make her his wife.
“He’s got big plans for land and babies,” she boasts to her sister, Nella. As in most of the scenes, Sadie, Nella, their mother Alice and Macon sing their stories — of survival and of hope, told in authentic gospel music and reflected in their hand-sewn quilts. You’ll hear “How I Got Over,” “Banks of Jordan” and “He’s All I Need” as the music reflects the period and the emotion.
MetroStage’s longtime music directors William Hubbard and William Knowles have added eight traditional gospel songs to the four from the original production of “Gee’s Bend” to create a powerful, soul-stirring experience that reaches deep into your spirit and claws its way beyond the heavens.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no sass. The sisters snipe at each other about men, morals and momma. As Nella tells Sadie, “It don’t matter what a quilt looks like. It’s what you do under it!”
The play/musical (artistic director Carolyn Griffin is still puzzling out how to categorize it) is set in Gee’s Bend, Ala., a real place separated from the mainland by a rickety, unpredictable ferry and surrounding river. Named for former slave owner Joseph Gee, it’s situated smack dab in the cradle of Martin Luther King Jr.’s movement — a bus ride from Selma and the historic march that Sadie longs to be a part of.
The play spans the years from 1939 to 2002, focusing on the Pettway family, generations of former slaves whose land holdings and civil rights were dearly bought and fought for.
Duyen Washington plays Alice (and later Asia), a wise matriarch who tries to train her daughters to be good housewives and even better quilters (the play’s many colored quilts are as authentic as it gets and come from the original production at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival). Washington crafts a beautiful portrait of a woman with little but her heart to give her girls.
Roz White, whose legendary voice has been heard in countless MetroStage productions like “Three Sistahs” and “Cool Papa’s Party,” gives us the stalwart Sadie, a perfect foil to her devil-may-care sister Nella, played by Margo Moorer, whose stage credits rival her film credits.
Anthony Manough crafts a likeable but hard-hearted Macon, an ambitious man who forgets the grim lessons of his youth as he tries to keep Sadie from her mission to register to vote. Manough, too, has appeared in numerous MetroStage productions — as well as on Broadway in “The Lion King” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Percussionist Greg Holloway handily backs up the amazing a capella singers with African-inspired gospel rhythms and cleverly imagined sound effects.
Thomas W. Jones II — the writer, director and actor who has received 42 Helen Hayes Award nominations — directs the stellar cast to achieve a richly textured evening of song and soul marked by redemption and transformation.
“Gee’s Bend” plays through November 3 at the MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St. For tickets and information, visit www.metrostage.org.