The lives of the Pettway women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama are stitched indelibly into the quilts they made. And as the presence of those quilts grew in the American consciousness — evolving from simple domestic wares into powerful social artifacts and, eventually, into American treasures — an unseen perspective on segregation and the Civil Rights Movement began to emerge.
MetroStage brings Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play Gee’s Bend to vivid life in an original production running through November 3 — a show given all the more color and dimension by an expansive mix of gospel songs performed live every evening. In charge of crafting this musical time and place: director Thomas W. Jones II (creator of numerous MetroStage productions, most recently this past spring’s Ladies Swing The Blues) alongside co-Music Directors William Knowles and William Hubbard.
Knowles, whose background is primarily in jazz, said it was clear from early on that the songs would be performed a capella, with some frequent accompaniment by percussionist Greg Holloway. “It’s a naturalistic show, a very clean kind of thing,” he explained during a rehearsal break as we sat on a bench outside the Alexandria theatre. “It’s not a big space the actors perform in, so adding a cappella music with those beautiful voices… It’s not just our way of setting up the scenes. It’s a chance to further the story using the songs.”
Hubbard brings his own skills to bear — he’s more of a gospel standards guy, and is a singer himself — but he couldn’t agree more with Knowles, and his excitement about the soulful soundtrack to this Gee’s Bend increases the longer we talk.
“I know a lot of these old gospel songs because that was my childhood,” he said. “My grandmother was an organist at St. John Baptist Church — just a few blocks from here — for over 50 years. I grew up in a pew watching her. The church women’s singing wasn’t always strict — it was very loose, how they sang. Most of the people weren’t musically trained. They just sang from their heart and soul. It was glorious to grow up with those sounds.”
We took some time with Jones, during an off-hour the next day, to get some insight into the big picture. His thoughts on the importance of sharing this story — and on the surprising capacities of live music to transform an evening of theatre — appear in condensed and edited form as follows.
DC Theatre Scene: Some will be familiar with the quilts of Gee’s Bend, which show a distinctive range and inventiveness in color, composition, and artistic style. They’ve appeared in numerous museum exhibits around the country during the past half-century. But we don’t always hear much in detail about the creators of these quilts. Why is this story an important one to you?
Thomas W. Jones II: Not only is it a beautifully written play, but it tells the story of a generation of women that to some degree don’t exist anymore. You could say it’s a play about women who make quilts, and there is a significance to that. But it goes much deeper. In a larger sense Gee’s Bend is about survival. It’s about a generation of people who quilted to survive this last century of American history. Against opposition, they quilted their lives and made something extraordinary out of meager circumstances.
Things escalated at times. The women of Gee’s Bend spent years working in support of voter registration, and eventually the ferry stopped running to Gee’s Bend, which prevented those people from going into town to vote. But over time, the quilts revitalized that economy. Quilts from Gee’s Bend were carried on the backs of the mules during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. And the Gee’s Bend Collective is still making quilts.
DCTS: Wilder has written a few songs into the show, but you and Hubbard and Knowles have significantly expanded the role of live music in the show. How come?
Jones: We use the music to stretch and expand the narrative. There’s a lot of compression of time into each scene, and sometimes there’s a chance you might miss some of what you’re getting into as an audience member, because it arrives quickly. I think the music helps to underscore where we are and how the scene has changed. This is the sound of this community, and so it can give us some real breath as we build a bridge from one scene to the next.
The play has four songs that are germane to the script, but there are plenty more than four scenes in the show, so I saw it as an opportunity to underscore and to do a little foreshadowing. It also also let us touch on some of the double meanings in these spirituals in the African American tradition. For example, “Wade in the Water” isn’t a song simply about baptism and redemption. It’s a spiritual that passed between plantations telling potential runaways to head for the water so that the dogs couldn’t follow them. The songs carried not just spiritual redemption but literal redemption too.
We wanted to tell the story of these women in a way that had dual meaning. The show needed to deepen our understanding of the time period and also continue an ongoing narrative about these women. The music gives us that sound, and that period, to land us.
DCTS: Which songs are the right songs to add? Tell us about the selection process.
Jones: We spent some of the summer listening through about eighty or a hundred spirituals that were all recorded specifically by the congregation at Gee’s Bend. All of the songs we ended up selecting were from those recordings. So, we found eight to ten more that we included in the show in addition to the four specified in the script.
We referenced a compilation recorded in 2004, but the majority of songs we selected were from the mid 1940s collection. The collections are remarkably similar for being recorded decades apart. Overall it’s really consistent.
DCTS: It was your idea to bring in Greg Holloway to be a presence onstage as percussionist, right?
Jones: Yes. The percussionist is there to create environmental sounds, but also to assist the music. In my mind, he’s there to help tie the African ethos, the American ethos, and the Southern ethos all together. I just kept hearing percussion. I don’t know why. I just heard this percussive rhythm underneath everything. We had to try it, and it works wonderfully.
DCTS: Is this particular strain of gospel music already a part of your bloodstream? Or did you have a learning curve of your own with this style of music?
Jones: I’ve done enough shows that I have a certain familiarity with gospels and spirituals. I’ve been a fan of Sweet Honey In The Rock forever, and groups like that drew their musical styles from the spiritual roots tradition. So I’ve had some acquaintance with it over the years. But I wasn’t familiar with every song in the show before we got into it.
I had an idea of what the songs needed to sound like, but not what the songs were going to be. Some of the songs I thought we were going to use we ended up not using. It was really informed by that time we took to listen to the spirituals of Gee’s Bend.
DCTS: How does the choice of songs impact the staging, or vice versa?
Jones: The music helps us focus the story. Which character, or characters, are central to the storytelling in a given moment? Whose point of view are we taking now? That’s a particularly important question during the scene transitions. Where do we fix the lens? The challenge was trying to create a series of physical transition that continued the life of the story between scenes.
DCTS: Tell us about the cast — Roz White, Margot Moorer, Duyen Washington, and Anthony Manough — and what they bring to bear.
Jones: Well first off, all four actors can really sing! To know that we had actors with really rich singing voices as well as the acting skills was essential.
Margo Moorer originated the role of Nella in the Alabama Shakespeare production of Gee’s Bend, and she actually got to speak with the current generation of women who live there. She’s been invaluable as a kind of metronome for us. I’m so glad we can benefit from the experiences she had with those women. She served as a sort of oral historian in her own way, and she could help communicate the things that still are important to these women about getting their story told.
Closes November 3, 2013
1201 North Royal Street
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $50 – $55
Thursdays thru Sundays
Jones: Fortunately the three of us have worked together for a long time, although this is the first time that they are Co-Music Directors. We all know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and one of us picks up where the other leaves off.
The two of them actually split the work on arrangements right down the middle. It was pretty seamless. They know each other’s styles and vocabularies. It was pretty quick. It wasn’t a hurdle. They didn’t have to learn each other.
So it turned out to be very organic. We had a sort of template for what we wanted it to sound like, just not the specifics. But that’s what William Hubbard does very well — he has a gift for just listening to the recorded song and then quickly figuring out options for arrangements. This kind of music was such a part of his upbringing… it’s part of his lexicon.
DCTS: How does this music work impact the storytelling that you’re doing as the director?
Jones: Arrangements can help get at a deeper story. The song “How I Got Over” is one example. In the beginning of the show we sing it in the southern root tradition, and then by the end of the show it’s sung in a more modern tradition. The same song has two different feels with different nuances, which can help us indicate a passage of time.
Another example: We took a big long transition during the song “It’s A Mean World” and we mashed it up with another song to create a two-part invention that we use at one point in the show to bring out two overlapping points of view among the characters.
And of course, we really wanted to keep everything right in the world of these four people. We decided not to play any pre-recorded material in the show. That way we always have to be listening, and we’re always engaged. Pre-recorded music can be really effective at creating a mood, but it often takes the audience out of the world, out of the moment.
But here, nothing external is coming in. We’re keeping it within the mouths of the people onstage. We all agreed: Let’s just keep it in the room.