Quilts are composed of strips of fabric, batting, and thread. Simple items sewn together into complex patterns. Traditionally, the quilters gather cloth which had served other purposes, such as feed sacks, clothing, and linens. The thread-bare, torn, faded, and stained parts of the article can be eliminated, while the quality cloth are cut into small squares, rectangles, triangles, and arches. Following a pattern, these are reassembled, each small piece sewn with other pieces to form squares. These squares are then connected, sometimes forming a larger pattern, such as stars or rings, sometimes showing the connection between apparent dissimilar collections of squares. The quilters frame this larger pattern with a border, then add the batting between the top and bottom layer of cloth. All of these is then stitched together, with another pattern emerging with the direction of each subsequent stitch. Quilting is not a solitary task. Quilters form bees or societies or clubs. Or, families quilt together. When a lone quilter works, she generally has a person in mind for whom her gift is being created. For every quilt, there is a story. Will it be told?
Katoria Hall is a playwright, who is part of Arena Stage’s artist in residency program. Over several years, she, along with other artists, are employed by the theatre to generate new plays on themes of American life. Her latest production, The Blood Quilt, is the story of a quilt, and of a family. In the course of 2 hours, four sisters will gather for their annual quilting weekend, on an island off from the coast of Georgia. They arrive with their scraps, cut out the pieces, assemble their squares, form the pattern, and complete the final stitches. All the while, they tell their stories.
Michael Carnahan’s set informs us that this play is about more than the present quilt. In the island home are hundreds of quilts. They hang from every wall, cover every bed and piece of furniture. The sisters are surrounded by their family history. The tell about the quilts made by their great-great-great-great-grandmothers during the era of slavery. One is made from the work clothes that her husband wore when he labored in the fields. Another has only nine squares left. She had made one square for each family members, but as they were sold to other plantation owners throughout the south, she cut out each square and give it to the person as they left, with the promise that someday they would be reassembled. Through each generation we learn about the history of the family, and how all of these quilts were kept in this house in an island far from the social turmoil of Reconstruction, Jim-Crow laws, and Civil Rights movements.
One person is missing from the quilting weekend. The mother of the sisters died about a month before the annual event. One new person is being introduced to the quilter’s circle. The only daughter of the four sisters has come with her mother, reluctantly with blue hair and a head scarf to represent her conversion to Islam… last week (in the sequence of being vegan to lesbian, in previous and subsequent weeks…). The stories of the quilts becomes more current, with the sisters talking about the family history they know: grandparents, parents, siblings, lovers and husbands, and children. These are quilts and fabric scraps representing each relationship.
Clementine (Tonye Patano) is the oldest daughter, who has remained on the island with her mother, ultimately caring for her in her dying years. She is as old as the island, the collection of quilts, and the house which she has lived in all of her life. She is as sweet and tart as the oranges for which she is named. Her father was her mother’s first love, but probably a farm hand, whom she was not allowed to marry.
Gio (Caroline Clay) is as worldly as her name implies. Her father came and left the island as predictably as the globe revolves. She left the island as soon as she could find a way to support herself, staying away as much as possible, but annually returns just as the earth returns to this location in relation to the sun each Spring. Her sense of joy and rage toward her mother come and go as reliably as the earth turns. The story of why she left the island will come later in the play.
Cassan (Nikiya Mathis) does know the story of her name. She only knows about her father, with the vague explanation of why he could not remain with her mother. Later, while exploring the cabinets and boxes that chronicle her mother’s she discovered a series of letters, written to her from her father, but never revealed by her mother. She learns of the hurricane, Cassan, which came upon the island, a storm which shaped her life since.
Amber, the youngest of the four sister, is the golden child, born by a poet. She is the child who has reflected the most by social standards: education, a legal practice representing movie stars and musicians. She spends her life in orbits that the other sisters only read about in the tabloids. Yet, she is always grasping at something that she cannot fully have. She spends the weekend searching for a cell phone signal which comes and goes, usually when she is half way into leaving a message for someone who is not available at the moment. This island, beaten by the ocean waves on one side and covered in swamp moss on the other, is far from Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris where she usually resides.
Each sister brings different stories about their lives and relationship to their mother and absent fathers. Each has a sense of abandonment, carrying their part of the family history. Each has tried to hold onto her square while going about the business of keeping the home and careers together. But, none of them know all of the stories and how they connect. Their mother has given them pieces of material and the ability to sew them together, but left that work for them to complete.
Zambia, the granddaughter, is the future generation. How many families leave their scraps hidden in boxes, when the older generation dies? The sisters appear to be on the verge of going off, letting go of the tradition of the quilter’s circle. But, Cassan brings Zabmia, who would rather talk in texting abbreviations, than to use phrases that her elders comprehend. She does not need cell service to confound and aggravate. As much as we might expect her to go off and pout under an oak tree for the weekend, she becomes the central square in this year’s quilt. The new generation are the ones who will live with the quilts passed on to them. The new generation are the ones who will resolve the failings that their parents leave as a legacy.
Ultimately, quilts are fabric. The quilting circle is the relationships between those who gather, bringing their scraps, cutting out what is usable, assembling them into patterns, and sewing them together. The quilts may end up somewhere unanticipated. The traditions, the rituals, the relationships are what remain, as long as the stories are told from one generation to the next. Along the way, each quilter will prick her finger, by accident or on purpose, to add the blood which reveals the pain of such work.