Funny, Poignant Gee's Bend Traces a Family's Saga

The Setup: The Ensemble Theatre has brought to vibrant life Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's Gee's Bend, the chronicle of a loving family, set against the background of the African-American march toward equal rights.

The Execution: But this is a domestic drama, not a political one, capturing the life of Sadie, from courtship to maturity, and the story of her sister Nella and mother Alice. Her husband, Macon, is portrayed with energy and charm by Kendrick "Kay" Brown, as he progresses from swain to businessman, though his removal from politics is a source of domestic difficulties.

But this is essentially the tale of three women, and what women they are. In her acting debut with the Ensemble, Michelle Harper gives a stunning performance, moving and intelligent - we see her coquettish at 15, in 1939, and resolute and compassionate in 2002, the time-span of this family saga. And she's matched by Detria Marie Ward as the mother, stern and protective but with a ready wit, and by Teacake as the sister, whose dry humor gets the most laughs in the production. While the subject is serious, the work is light-hearted, laced with humor and graced with snatches of gospel songs that are charming and poignant. The narrative traces how quilts made by the descendants of slaves found their way to become art and hang on museum walls - a viewing in a museum by the three women has emotional power. Similar emotions are evoked by simple elements, a sip at a water fountain, a key, a jar of VapoRub. The handsome wooden set, by Jodi Bobrovsky, serves multiple purposes well. Director Elizabeth Van Dyke has created an acting ensemble well-suited to a theater with that name.

The Verdict: Gee's Bend is likely to be one of the season's most enjoyable productions.

(Through February 27. The Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main Street, 713-520-0055.)

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Jim Tommaney