Quilts take center stage during Roots festival

They took what little they had and made do.

From old clothes and discarded materials of no better use, they fashioned beautiful, artistic quilts for badly needed warmth. From drudgery, they found life.

They are the women of Gee's Bend, Ala., a few thousand acres of land in the southern part of the state that is surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River. Mules from Gee's Bend pulled the casket bearing the remains of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Until recently, the women of Gee's Bend lived hard lives, just as their mothers had and just as it appeared their daughters would.

But that was before the world noticed those quilts.

Now those quilts have been on display in museums throughout the country, and the women who have been hailed as artistic geniuses, have formed a collective to allow about 50 women to share in the profits of all sales.

Two of the women of Gee's Bend will be in Lexington this week, along with about 20 of those highly prized quilts.

Mary Ann Pettway and China Pettway will be in Lexington Thursday and Friday,

Then, on Sept. 20, the Agape Theatre Troupe will perform Gee's Bend, a play written by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder at the Lexington Opera House.

Deb Shoss, who directs the production, saw the play in Atlanta last year and thought it was well-suited for Agape, a group started by members of Imani Baptist Church.

Cathy Rawlings, a founder of Agape, said the troupe wants to expose Central Kentuckians to plays written for, by or about black people who have made positive advancements in their lives.

"I want to expose them to cultural pieces," she said. "I want to let people know who Lorraine Hansberry and John Henry Redwood and Pearl Cleage are. We want to educate and nurture.

"Our goal is to be the first to perform in the (renovated) Lyric Theater," Rawlings said.

For now, though, she will be performing in Gee's Bend, the story of Sadie, her mother, Alice, and sister Nella from the early 1930s until recent years, featuring a capella singing. We can watch as Sadie gets married, gives birth to eight children and tries to be a part of the civil rights movement.

The one connecting line to life and death for Sadie is quilting, which yields not only comfort, but also fellowship and financial stability.

In May, members of the troupe visited Gee's Bend and met the women. Earlier this month, Rawlings returned with her son to bring quilts back to Lexington for display and for sale.

"My son is 26," Rawlings said, "and he hasn't stopped talking about it. It touched him so much, and that's what I'm talking about. We need this in Central Kentucky."

From the age of about 13, the girls of Gee's Bend were expected to make quilts, using the bold and distinctive, folksy and simplistic designs handed down through the generations. Those who were good at it tried to outdo their mothers and grandmothers by creating new designs from the old styles while staying true to the traditional character of the quilts.

"When I retired from Actor's Guild, I took up quilting," Shoss said. "It's an art you can practice without collaboration."

Once the rights to the play were secured, a location for the production was still needed. The Opera House opened its doors to the fledgling group and "did all kinds of things to help us out," Shoss said. "It just worked out that we were able to do it. It seats 900 people. It would take two weeks or three weeks to reach that many people at Downtown Arts Center.

"But we really have got to fill the seats," she added. "The play is worthy in every possible way. It is truthful and the essence of the black experience."

The Gee's Bend Quilt Collective exhibits and speakers, as well as the play, are a part of the 20th Annual Roots & Heritage Festival scheduled for Sept. 3-26.