The Blood Quilt, being given its world premiere at Arena Stage, is a loving portrayal of sisters battling their way through deep-seated, sometimes painful memories to get to a better, brighter reality. Four sisters return to their old homestead off the Georgia coast, and work their way through the fabric of life, chance, and their own choices after their mother’s funeral.
One might recall a similarly themed Gee’s Bend produced by MetroStage, depicting a small African American community tucked into the “bend” of the Alabama river in constant jeopardy of being cut off from the mainland, where the women master skills such as quilting. Where Bend tackled the socio-political exterior issues of civil rights and history, Blood Quilt dives deep into the interior, revealing the hearts, wounded psyches and souls of women who must each come to grips with being motherless daughters.
The stakes are high when the sisters learn that unpaid back-taxes will result in imminent foreclosure of the family house unless drastic measures are taken. Could they really consider selling off the family quilts to the highest bidder, each containing fabric worn by their ancient mothers and fathers through generations since slavery? Gifted playwright Katori Hall of Mountain Top fame, sets up the premise with emotional fortitude and characters that have depth and grace–we ache for them, laugh with them and cry a time or two, especially as they recall tales of their ancestors buried beneath the sea of the Middle Passage, and watch them struggle with their own deep-seated demons of the here and now.
From the time of the initial gathering, the sisterly affection is evident from the loud raucous banter as they jostle and greet each other playfully, recalling early days with hugs and laughter. Still, something stirs beneath the surface, slight signs of awkward encounters, words unsaid, embraces unreturned and downcast glances. Still waters run deep, and the ripples are not as gentle and peaceful as they seem.
Tonye Patano plays the eldest daughter, Clementine, now the matron of the house. When the shouting gets particularly loud and unruly, she’s the one who rules the roost and sets everyone straight– even the toughest sister backs down with a petulant pout when Clementine commands respect. Patano is well matched by Carolyn Clay as Gio who smolders with intensity. Just off a Helen Hayes nomination for a mesmerizing performance in Gideon’s Knot, and recipient for Best Featured Actress for Doubt, Clay has deep, resonating vocal chops and a presence that commands respect. Reminding me of the dynamics between Lynda Gravatt and S. Epatha Merkerson in Old Settler some years back, another set of sparring sisters, the two toss lines off of each other, knowing that the other will smack them back like powerful aces. Meeya Davis is Amber the upper crust, sophisticated, Louis Vuitton toting sister who made good, while Nikiya Mathis and Afi Bijou play mother and daughter, potentially the next generation of quilters.
There is simply nothing like the healing power and energy of sisters united around the legacy of fabric, and Hall’s script covers swatches of territory with cross-stitched intricacy. The mother was beloved, leaving a cherished legacy among the daughters, but the stories and memories that seep out reveal her punishing cruelty as well. The script skimmers along the surface for a while and then plunges beneath deeper still to the depth of painful secrets longing to be released.
Director Kamilah Forbes has enough mother wit to allow all to be revealed in cresting waves–just when we thought we knew what was coming, another wave deposits an unanticipated issue, consequence or revelation for a spell-binding experience. Lighting and sound design by Michael Gilliam and Timothy M. Thompson respectively, relay an impending storm with clarity and skill reflecting the raging turmoil within the women’s own souls. There was even a Dialect coach, Robert Barry Fleming, who helped them slip into Gullah Geechee when in distress, sounding like they were channeling the Mother tongue directly to startling effect.
THE BLOOD QUILT
April 24 – June 7
Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater
1101 Sixth Street, SW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $110
Tickets or call 202-488-3300
Toshi Reagon served as composer and vocal consultant bringing an earthy authenticity to the sounds, and set designer Michael Carnahan topped it all off with partitioned sections representing various bedrooms, wall hangings of quilt pieces, and trees dripping with Spanish moss. Carnahan’s design includes a fully functioning moat like pool of water just outside the door, ever present like the sea itself, full of beauty, mystery, death, doom and everything in between.
As she did in Mountain Top Katori Hall plunges the actors into a mystical consciousness, I think even more successfully here. The spirit laden quilt, the sisters’ final homage to their mother takes on a life of its own as they chant and pray and hold onto each other with the storm howling outside their door.
Blood Quilt has an aching sensibility for ancestry and cultural legacy. We relate to the characters, and appreciate that clutching painful memories and life’s disappointments will keep you stuck, and that, like the undulating waves of healing waters, sometimes we have to open up to a fresh new reality — and let it go.
The Blood Quilt by Katori Hall . Directed by Kamilah Forbes . Featuring Afi Bijou, Caroline Clay, Meeya Davis, Nikiya Mathis and Tonye Patano . Set Designer: Michael Carnahan . Costume Designer: Dede Ayite . Lighting Designer: Michael Gilliam . Sound Designer: Timothy M. Thompson . Composer and Vocal Consultant: Toshi Reagon . Stage Manager: Kurt Hall, assisted by Kristen Mary Harris . Produced by Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.