Stage & Dance

Quilters led dramatic lives

Deb Shoss was excited about Gee's Bend, a play about the legendary quilters of rural Alabama. But Cathy Rawlings was skeptical to the point of indifference.

"I thought, 'I don't want to do a play about a bunch of little old ladies quilting,'" says Rawlings, a Lexington actress and founder of Agape Theatre Troupe.

Shoss, who had previously directed Rawlings in plays for Agape Theatre Troupe and Actors Guild of Lexington, agrees. "I wouldn't have come out of my house for that," she says.

But "little old ladies quilting" is far from a fair description of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's Gee's Bend, as Rawlings soon found out.

The group's quilts, now considered masterpieces of modern art, frame a struggle for survival and perseverance by the women of the town of Gee's Bend, who, like African-American people everywhere in early and mid-20th-century America, had to endure pervasive and institutional racism.

The story of the 2007 play, which has one performance by Agape Theatre Troupe at the Lexington Opera House on Sunday, focuses on some of the women of Gee's Bend, from their childhoods to realizing dreams too wild for their imaginations.

"They made these quilts to keep them warm," Shoss says. "And then, when they got too raggedy, they'd use them as mops, and when they were too raggedy for mops, they'd burn them to smoke out mosquitoes."

Rawlings says what ultimately drew her into the story were the women and their struggles to overcome society and, in some cases, their own husbands.

For instance, the central character of Sadie, played by Sylvia Howard, is baptized at the beginning of the show and marries Macon, played by Jeremy Gillett, who has managed to gain the security of land and a house.

But Sadie wants her rights, too, and later in her marriage, her desire to march with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes into direct conflict with Macon's plea not to rock the boat.

Shoss discovered there was a play about Gee's Bend while visiting Atlanta. She had seen a documentary, The Quilts of Gee's Bend, "so I knew what it was about," she said.

She contacted the playwright about presenting the show and learned it was being published by Samuel French Inc. But French had not printed it yet, so Agape couldn't get it. That was OK, to an extent, because Shoss still had to sell Rawlings on the show.

"I'd drop by Deb's house after work for something else, and she'd say, 'Just read the first scene,'" says Rawlings, who plays Sadie's sister, Nella.

Like Shoss, Rawlings was won over by the Gee's Bend documentary.

The actors eventually were so compelled by the story that they went to south-central Alabama to visit the women of Gee's Bend. Rawlings was the first to knock on the door of one of the quilters' homes.

"Gee's Bend is a special place," Rawlings says. "When you get off the ferry, you feel an aura there."

Earlier this month, a few Gee's Bend quilters visited Lexington and a rehearsal of the play.

The show not only commemorates a place the cast and crew have fallen in love with, it is also a big step forward for Agape Theatre Troupe. Previously, the group has performed at smaller venues, including the Imani Family Life Center, where it is based. But with Gee's Bend, the theater took the step of performing in the 866-seat Lexington Opera House.

"It's an important step for us, and it's an important show," Rawlings says.

Shoss adds, "We put it there because people need to see it."

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