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Curtain Calls: Seamless ‘Blood Quilt’ at Arena

Set of "Blood Quilt" playing at the Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography
Four sisters, one deceased mother, four absent fathers, one hundred quilts – these are the corner pieces that frame Katori Hall’s new play, “The Blood Quilt.” Set in the family home on a tiny island off the coast of Georgia, the annual quilting weekend gives these women a reason to reunite – anxiously, dutifully, often defensively – and with them come the buried secrets and old wounds that created the patterns of their lives.

Ms. Hall, with a heightened awareness of the scarcity of vibrant roles specifically for black women, once described the creation of such roles as her “mission statement.” Directed by Kamilah Forbes, the mission is dramatically realized in this story of family bonds and the complicated knots of love, humor, and bitterness that stitch them together.

If the metaphor of quilts is a bit obvious as it symbolizes the scraps of experience that each woman contributes to the family tradition, it is also gracefully played. Tonye Patano as Clementine, the eldest, brings a well-grounded approach to her birth position as everyone’s big sister. Even in the stormiest confrontations among the others, she manages to exert an authority that is never seriously challenged.

Like two natural enemies, Gio (Caroline Clay) and Amber (Meeya Davis) repel one another with the invisible forces of jealousy, contempt, and memory of past abuse. Mama, it seems, only three weeks dead, still casts a long shadow.

Ms. Clay has an earthy forcefulness as Gio, a rough-tongued Georgia cop whose pain has been buried under years of pent-up rage. Amber, the baby, the pretty one, lures that rage to the surface just by existing. An entertainment lawyer out of L.A., Amber is as practical as she is stylish – a further polarizing factor when it appears that selling a century’s worth of family quilts to a museum (where white people will look at them!) may be the only way to pay off back taxes and save the family home. That division between a practical solution and a deeply emotional attachment forms the central external problem around which the sisters contend. (It also bears faint echoes of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.”)

Playing the middle while seeing both ends is Cassan (Nikiya Mathis), the nurturer, and the only mother among them. A nurse by profession, she seeks peace among her sisters until a surprise revelation about her father and mother sends her spiraling over the edge. And then there is Zambia, (Afi Bijou) Cassan’s daughter. Young and sassy and full of opinions, only her oblivious moxie (and attention to her smart phone) keeps her afloat in the surging emotional tides around her.

Michael Carnahan’s set design reflects both the reality and the symbolism of “Blood Quilt.” Layers of wood and earth toned furniture are backed by multiple hanging quilts, a visual which suggests the many dimensions of time, family, and stories both hidden and revealed. A moat of water bordering the set downstage plays its own silent role until a climactic moment that brings the sisters, the new quilt, and the dead mother together in a scene that verges on the supernatural.

Precise costuming by Dede Ayite defines each sister in her corner of this complicated family “quilt”, and Timothy Thompson’s sound design underscores the tensions and the harmonies that emerge. The sisters’ singing of “Needles Up” in rounds is one such welcome harmonious interruption.

While Ms. Hall has crafted a taut portrait of four sisters who can be legitimately played only by black women, its universal appeal is in the conflicts of individual versions of family history, the deep roots of love, and the blood ties that keep them together.

If you go

What: “The Blood Quilt”
Where: Arena Stage
1101 Sixth St. SW
Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 488-3300 or visit arenastage.com
Playing through June 7

Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher. You may reach her at maggiecatbird@aol.com
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