Alicia Reve' Like plays Nella, a bright patch in an Alabama family whose quilts tell stories of segregation and the civil rights movement.
Last February, Alicia Reve' Like portrayed a motel maid who whooped up on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Black Rep’s “The Mountaintop,” the story of King’s last hours.
This month, Like, 25, brings that big attitude belying her small frame to the character of Nella in Mustard Seed’s “Gee’s Bend.” The play, based on true events, begins in the home of an African-American family in Gee’s Bend, Ala., in the 1930s. As their lives unfold, the humble, hand-made quilts into which they’ve stitched their tears and joy eventually travel the country and find a home at The Whitney Museum in New York City.
Directed by Mustard Seed founder Deanna Jent, “Gee’s Bend” also features actors Jacqueline Thompson as Nella’s sister Sadie; Reginald Pierre as Macon, Sadie’s boyfriend then husband; and playwright Marty Casey as the mother of Nella and Sadie.
Each character has his or her shining moments against the backdrop of a giant blue quilt. But the play's a veritable showcase for Like’s talents, with assistance from dialect coach Sydney Frasure. Lines that might get a chuckle coming from another actor elicit surprised laughter from an audience that soon begins to count on Like’s husky audacity.
As a young whippersnapper, Nella ribs Sadie for the obvious pregnancy her sister’s trying to hide. “Been doing more than just ridin’,” she smirks when Sadie admits to spending time in Macon’s truck.
It’s a one-hour truck drive to the town of Camden and its voting booths. For a time, a ferry cuts the time to 15 minutes.
In 1962, after the ferry’s closed, an adult Nella wryly observes the invisible chains that still shackle African Americans who dare to matter: “The sheriff say they didn’t cut off the ferry because we was black. Say it’s because we forgot we was black.”
But it’s in embodying the demented, hunched-over, elderly Nella that Like reaches her full potential, her once-full voice now a quiver as she claws her sweater tightly around thin shoulders. Referencing a mama who’s long dead and waiting for a ferry that hasn’t come in 30 years, Nella implores the more lucid Sadie, “You hear them crickets? ... They talkin’ to us.”
“What they sayin’?” Sadie humors her addled sister.
Shooting Sadie a look that snatches them back to their girlhood bickering and her own youthful insouciance, Nella retorts:
“I don’t know. They crickets. How I know what crickets say? You crazy.”
Find Out More About Gee’s Bend and Its Quilters
Where: Mustard Seed Theatre, Fontbonne University, 6800 Wydown Blvd., 63105
When: Thursday-Sunday, through Feb. 23
How much: $20-$25
Tickets/Information: Mustard Seed website