‘The Blood Quilt’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater

America used to be defined by its communities. Communities of ethnic and national identity, of urban migration, of rural affiliation, of blood and toil.

(L to R) Nikiya Mathis as Cassan, Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Afi Bijou as Zambia and Caroline Clay as Gio 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) Nikiya Mathis (Cassan), Tonye Patano (Clementine), Meeya Davis (Amber), Afi Bijou (Zambia), and Caroline Clay (Gio).  Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Today, America is defined by its latest pop culture star, its hottest new celebrity performer, its glamour athletes, and its glitzy, outlandish politicians.

Today, national commercials have more influence on our behavior than parents and teachers combined.

Arena Stage’s world premiere production of The Blood Quilt, by Katori Hall, explores the depths of that widening national transformation: its effect on people, on families, on the future.

The power of Hall’s script, the brilliance of its five-actor ensemble and Kamilah Forbes‘ direction, and the breathtaking aesthetics of the production’s scenography make The Blood Quilt a show no one should miss this spring. It is a rich feast of language, insight, and beauty.

The Blood Quilt will leave you trembling with anticipation.

Let’s start with Hall’s script. Never underestimate the muscle of traditional theatrics. The Blood Quilt has a story. It has complex love them/hate them characters; it has socially relevant and culturally specific themes.

The Blood Quilt never shies away from the difficult to handle; and, even if that issue has almost become cliché in our gossip-driven culture, Ms. Hall takes it on and makes it her own.

Its intricate weave of character defining choices, pop culture references (everything from today’s celebrities to its Verizon versus T-Mobil commercials), emotionally draining monologues, and jokes–lots of jokes both situational and of the standup comedian variety–make The Blood Quilt a constantly engaging journey into the heartache of family dysfunction, survival, and dissolution.

Yes, this play deals with a family that any right thinking human being would want to disown in a heartbeat, if each and every one of them weren’t so damn loveable.

Hall begins its story three weeks after the death of the Jernigan family matriarch. Her four daughters gather for the annual quilting ritual at the family home on an island off the Georgia coast, that still embodies the African roots of its ancestors.

With their tyrannical mother no longer there to keep the lid on, sibling tensions soon boil over into a full fledged truth session, made only more raw by the unexpected reading of Mama Jernigan’s will. The uneven divide of the spoils only leads to fierce incriminations and threats of total familial dissolution.

The five actresses who portray the Jernigan sisterhood (four sisters and one daughter of a sister) are as tightly woven together as the script.

Tonye Patano plays Clementine, the eldest daughter, with rich authority and deep common sense. Whenever emotions threaten to wreck the annual quilt-making party, she welds her scepter and brings her unruly siblings back into focus.

Second eldest is Gio, played with bone-chilling authenticity by Caroline Clay. A police officer by profession, Gio combines Tina Turner’s bawdy sexiness with a spiteful bitterness that, without Ms. Clay’s skillful actress touch, would be impossible to imagine in a single character.

Third on this totem of family trees is Cassan, played by Nikiya Mathis. She gives this nurse and mother a firm hand and a deep love for her daughter. When she discovers her own mother’s betrayal, her heretofore calm nurse-like demeanor is overcome with loss.

(L to R) Tonye Patano as Clementine and Meeya Davis as Amber 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) Tonye Patano (Clementine) and Meeya Davis (Amber). Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The youngest daughter, Amber, played by Meeya Davis, is the odd sister out. She is the young professional, the 21st century “modern” woman with career, glitter, and lots of superficial relationships. Ms. Davis fills the stage with her intelligence and, later, her unflinching loneliness.

Finally, there is Zambia, the teenage texter, tweeterer, facebook friender, lol next generation Jernigan. Played by Afi Bijou, this wise woman of the future adjusts to revelations of familial dirty laundry just as quickly as she does to the latest new operating system or Apple device. Ms. Bijou gives Zambia a charmingly disarming, insightfully articulate take on the totally messed up world of the adults around her.

Kamilah Forbes directs this excellent cast with precision, creating both wonderful pacing and moments of pure remembrance.

Her design team was led by Set Designer Michael Carnahan, whose family home textured with quilts and earth tones and sea waves lapping at the pier created a fablesque quality to the play’s world. Multi-leveled and sensuous, one could almost taste its rich landscape.

The set of The Blood Quilt designed by Michael Carnahan in the Kreeger Theater at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
The set of ‘The Blood Quilt’ designed by Michael Carnahan in the Kreeger Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The family home was lit by Lighting Designer Michael Gilliam, who then gave us ritualistic lighting and sparkles during the climax.

Costumes by Dede Ayite enhanced each character, providing uniqueness and color, while Sound Designer Timothy M. Thompson gave us rolling thunder.

And it’s that rolling thunder that defines this ominous play about the dissolution of familial and cultural ties despite these sisters’ urgent desire to stop the cultural hegemony of capitalism’s gentrification, redevelopment and Cultural homogenization.

With the world transforming hourly, by way of rapid migrations and unimaginable technologies, all those deeply tucked images and patterns and blood ties, to which only a quilt could bear witness, will soon be lost forever (if in the future you want to see them, you will have to go to a museum and gaze admiringly at them from across the do-not-touch barrier).

Soon, family, the kind that marks its generations with both deep wounds and hard truths, will give way to a far more temporal notion of family, perhaps just as nuclear in its capacity to damage its children, but without the extended bonds that provide community and kinship even in the hardest of times.

And the culture that thrives in that longwinded family dynamic, it too will evaporate in the fast-paced, and superficial glitz of viral videos, reality TV, cell-phone selfies, and texts, and Hollywood blockbusters about yet another hero who saves America from an invading horde.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with an intermission.

The Blood Quilt plays through June 7, 2015 at Arena Stage – 1101 6th Street SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Box Office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.


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