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‘Quilters’ evokes strength, joy, artistry

Wednesday, November 19, 2008JOHNSON CITY – After the bra-burning 1960s, feminism surged in the 1970s and ’80s. Despite the fact it was “born” during rather turbulent years, the Tony Award-winning folk-musical “Quilters,” being performed this week at East Tennessee State University, speaks quietly and humbly of the joys and pains, strengths and weaknesses in the everyday moments and accomplishments of women, as viewed through the lens of the pioneers who were America’s backbone in its infancy.

But, do not fear the production might be a strident rendition of “I Am Woman . . . Hear Me Roar,” says Cara Harker, director of the play opening this Thursday (Nov. 20) in Gilbreath Hall’s Bud Frank Theatre.

The women are portrayed as they help build the “new frontier,” moving from the Appalachian Mountains through the plains and into the West, searching from place to place for the American Dream.

“One of the things I like about directing this play is its balance,” says Harker, a faculty member in the Division of Theatre and Dance. It doesn’t “deny the role” of man, as some women in the show also portray men, but it is “woman-centered,” focusing on the strengths of women in motherhood and domestic life. Although some people hear the word “feminism” and think “I am woman – hear me roar,” or “I don’t need a man,” Harker says the play doesn’t reflect that narrow viewpoint.

Using the visual element of 16 squares from a huge multicolored quilt that hangs as the backdrop for the soft-gray, tilted stage, “Quilters” highlights many facets of life through vignettes from the lives of more than 50 characters portrayed by a seven-woman cast. Each square represents a piece of the puzzle – girlhood, marriage, childbirth, baptism, adoption, spinsterhood and even death.

Despite the depth of the subjects, the book by Molly Newman and Barbara Damashek is not a “downer,” says Harker, a graduate of Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University. “This play has a lot of movement. I like the way it jumps and changes so quickly.” She also notes that one scene can be “heavy,” while the next one makes playgoers laugh.

The play does not dwell on the downside of being a woman or the hardships of the pioneer life, though she says the show could have easily turned into “women complaining about our struggle,” rather than “telling how they have struggled and survived through trials” and the good found in every situation.

The various situations also include some form of dance or song which Harker, a choreographer and ETSU dance instructor, fully appreciates. A five-piece band, directed by and including University School theatre and music instructor Dr. Joe Borden, accompanies the performers. Other band members hail from the ETSU Bluegrass program and the Honors College. “The music is just wonderful, thanks to Joseph Borden…the harmony and musical pieces link the stories together so nicely. This is really the ‘glue’ that holds it all together.”

Dance steps Harker has choreographed to accompany the harmony include Irish step, folk dance and waltz, though “their waltz ‘partner’ is a stool.”

The performance uses “wonderful transitional” lighting by theatre professor Melissa Shafer as well as props to “stitch together more tightly” pieces of the “legacy quilt of life.” And, as the play’s name indicates, quilts of every size flow throughout the scenes – over shoulders, wrapping babies, undulating like water, covering cows, wiping a tear, reminding of a long-lost birth mother.

Performance sets are the creation of ETSU’s Dr. Delbert Hall while costumes are by faculty member Karen Brewster.

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