Mustard Seed Theatre aims at faith, justice

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

During a rehearsal for the upcoming production of "Gee's Bend," director Deanna Jent sat still in her seat as she focused on the scenes.

Occasionally she stirred and gently made a point. "You don't have to wait until you get outside to say those lines. Do whatever is natural," Jent told the actress, whose smile acknowledged that she got the point. Throughout the rehearsal, it was evident that Jent, the actors and crew were of one mind, acting in concert as they perfected the performance.

"Gee's Bend," a play by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, is the next offering from the 2013-14 season of Mustard Seed Theatre. It is the story of women quilters from the isolated community of Gee's Bend, Ala. Beginning in 1939, the play follows Alice, her daughters Sadie and Nella, and Sadie's husband, Macon, through segregation, family strife and the civil rights movement.

Affiliated with Fontbonne University, Mustard Seed is self-funded through grants and ticket sales. The professional theater is based at the Catholic university and produces plays about faith and social justice.

Jent, founder and artistic director, is a professor of theater at Fontbonne, where she has taught and directed shows since the fall of 1995. "Part of the reason I wanted to start Mustard Seed was so the students could have some professional experience while they were getting their undergraduate degrees," Jent said.

Students at Mustard Seed intern with professional directors, designers and stage managers and have the opportunity to do a professional audition.

Before Mustard Seed was founded, Jent had a stack of scripts she couldn't get produced elsewhere. "I'd been teaching at Fontbonne and directing at many of the professional theaters around St. Louis, which is great," she said. "But I had found some scripts I was really interested in directing, a pile of seven to 10 scripts that someday, somewhere I thought I'd find some company to do them."

All the scripts had themes of faith or social justice or both. Jent realized no theater in town was specifically focused on those themes.

Now came the clincher. "I got a call from a woman alum," Jent said. "She had given some small amounts for theater productions in the past. She happened to call me one morning and asked if I had any new projects in mind. I said, 'It's funny you should ask.' When I finished describing what turned out to be Mustard Seed Theatre, she said, 'What will it take to get it started?'"

Jent told her what it would cost -- a fairly substantial amount -- and to her delight, the alum wanted to provide the amount needed to begin the project. "Angels unaware," Jent said, agreeing that God's hand was involved. A group of theater artists who were colleagues and friends became the advisory board and shaped the mission statement. They were "kind of steering the boat as we took off from shore," Jent said.

Mustard Seed's first production, in 2007, "Remnant," garnered six local Kevin Kline award nominations and instant acclaim.

The university has been supportive ever since the start. Jent, who attends a Methodist church, said she embraces the mission of the university. She has written a play about the Sisters of St. Joseph coming over from France and founding a school for the deaf and eventually Fontbonne.

Jent also wrote "Falling," which debuted at Mustard Seed and received the 2012 Kevin Kline Award for Best New Play. It made its Off-Broadway premiere last year at New York's Minetta Lane Theatre. "Falling" is about an autistic 18-year-old and how his autism affects the lives of those around him.

Jent wrote it from personal experience and noted that though it was specific, it also was universal, hitting on themes that exist in many families. "It's really a play about family dynamics. It's about what happens when life has to revolve around one person, whether it's addiction or disease or personality or whatever. I eventually came upon the phrase, 'It's about loving someone who's hard to love.' We all have that in our families."

People have told Jent that the play provides a sense of relief that there are others who share the same experiences and feelings. It will be performed again at Mustard Seed from April 11 to May 4.

"Gee's Bend" explores three time periods of a family's lives. "The story of hanging onto faith in the face of injustice is a very broad theme in there, and also the importance of family," Jent said.

Jane Sullivan is a Mustard Seed staff member and parishioner at St. Anthony of Padua in High Ridge. She said she was drawn to what the theater stands for and the sincerity and care that Jent shows. "We don't all practice the same faith, go to the same churches, but the underlying value system is the same," she said. "I can see that whether it's in the business office area, the production area or onstage with the actors and how the director communicates with the actors."

"Gee's Bend"

WHAT: The story of women quilters as they struggle through segregation, family strife and the civil rights movement

WHEN: Feb. 7-23; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Fontbonne University theater, 6800 Wydown Blvd.

TICKETS: See www.stlouisreview.com/roP

FOR INFORMATION: Call (314) 719-8060 or e-mail info@mustardseedtheatre.com

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