On Stage: Loss and the Living

by Chuck Conconi

The all-female cast of ‘The Blood Quilt’ explores death and family dynamics with expertise.

(L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in Katori Hall’s The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater April 24-June 7, 2015. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Meeya Davis as Amber, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Caroline Clay as Gio, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Tonye Patano as Clementine in ‘The Blood Quilt’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Successful authors and playwrights understand that in looking for a creative stimulus they only have to look into the family. Everything they ever need is there: the comedy, the pathos, the tragedy. And smartly delving into that rich treasure trove of emotion is what Katori Hall did in “The Blood Quilt,” a new work now in production at Arena Stage.

In “The Blood Quilt,” Hall brings four sisters to the remote Georgia Island home of their mother who has recently died. They have come together to create a quilt, an activity they shared with their mother that was about much more than sewing. It was an annual event that was the foundation of the family’s history and stability, stretching back generations.

Some of what this family believes of its history is folklore, but that doesn’t make it any the less significant or real. Hall takes the four sisters to a crossroads: can the familial relationships survive the death of their mother and the disappointing realities of their lives, along with the weakening sisterly relationships much more fragile through the loss of their mother, the glue that held them together?

Director Kamilah Forbes has carefully balanced the threatening crisis of familial disintegration. They have lost the stability their mother symbolized, but have more affection and understanding for each other than they realize. On this isolated island where they grew up surrounded by generations of quilts is their history, their identity.

Forbes brought together a smart cast of the seemingly unrelated, drifting personalities. They may have shared the same mother, but the similarity ends there. There is Tonye Patano as Clementine, the eldest sister who stayed on the island and cared for their mother; Caroline Clay as Gio, a police officer on the mainland with a complicated personal life; Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, who arrives with a teenage daughter and has an absent husband; and Meeya Davis as Amber, the youngest who completely escaped the Georgia island and is estranged from the family, as a successful Harvard educated lawyer who was her mother’s favorite. Rounding out the cast is Afi Bijou, Cassan’s teenage daughter Zambia, who has been a Goth and a vegetarian and is now an ersatz Muslim.

Hall writes sensitive, understanding cultural dialogue, and the actors have benefited from Robert Barry Fleming’s dialect coaching. You don’t have to have grown up on a primitive Georgia island to appreciate the authenticity of the cadence and rhythm of Hall’s words, sometimes hilarious, sometimes painfully harsh. The sisters speak a patois that is comprehensible and delightful to the ear.

Michael Carnahan’s set design is complex and elaborate – a cluttered, but comfortable island house filled with generations of quilts. There is both an indoor and outdoor area, bedrooms at different levels, a complete kitchen and even a water area representing the Atlantic Ocean. Forbes choreographed the actors through the various spaces with an effective grace.

What is so captivating is that the sisters squabble and argue like any siblings remembering old slights and jealousies. The first act of the nearly three hour production is highlighted with Gio’s snide comments that are wonderfully funny. She clearly has the best lines with her cynicism covering up her loneliness and disappointments.

The tensions rise when it is discovered that their mother left a will with an unequal distribution of what she had to leave. This is when the disappointments of each life are bared and it appears that in spite of the shared memories they have with each other, this may be the last time they will come together; this may be the last quilt they will create.

Patano, Clay, Mathis, Davis and Bijou are remarkable performers who make us feel as though we know them so well that they could all be members of our own family. Hall understands family dynamic and the vast range of inescapable emotions that exist there. “The Blood Quilt” is good enough to become a theatrical classic like another great family drama, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

“The Blood Quilt” continues through June 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St., SW. Tickets are $45-$100 and available at 202-488-3300 or online here

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