by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Every now and then a team of artists come together in a perfect theatrical pairing. When that happens, sparks fly. Playwright Katori Hall and director Kamilah Forbes are such a team. Just before rehearsals began for the world premiere of The Blood Quilt, I was fortunate enough to sit down with these two extremely talented women and discuss their collaboration. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
What is The Blood Quilt about and what was your inspiration for the play?
KH: The Blood Quilt is about four sisters, one especially estranged, who get together every summer for a quilting bee. And this is the first time they’re doing the quilting bee without their mom because she passed away three months prior to when the play begins. So over the course of the play they are putting together Mama’s last quilt and the quilting becomes a reading of their mama’s will, and secrets are revealed and relationships tested.
Most of my plays are inspired by historical events; a real story that I want to dramatize, but this comes from a deeply personal place. The secrets that are revealed in the play are not my secrets or my family’s, but it’s inspired by a lot of the drama that my family members have dealt with. People ask me who I am in the play and I say “I’m Amber—and I’m Gio and Clementine and Zambia. I’m all of them.”
How does a play start for you — is it usually plot or character or a bit of dialogue?
KH: I’m a playwright who writes a lot from place and space. I’m interested in how setting—whether it’s tight quarters; big, expansive quarters; countries or cities—how that influences my characters’ choices and their journeys. I’m governed more by region than by race and I’m a writer who is from the South.
I’m inspired by setting more so than anything else. That jumping off point is very important to me. I was in South Carolina researching for a workshop at the Royal Court Theater in London in 2009 when I came across Sapelo Island, this beautiful island off the coast of Georgia, where a lot of the Gullah Geechee people live and I was deeply interested in excavating and learning about how African culture preserved itself within America. So that was the point of entry in creating the place where The Blood Quilt exists. It’s inspired by Sapelo Island but I changed the name of the island to Kwemera, which is an African word that means “to last, to withstand, to endure.” And that’s what the sisters do.
What excites you about this production?
KF: What I’m truly excited about for the play is this idea around these women who are preserving this culture—their quilting, but also preserving their Geechee culture. The Geechee islands have always been fascinating for me. My family’s from Jamaica, so it has this kinship. But it’s also a preservation of African culture throughout generations. There’s something that is fascinating about that. When we went to Sapelo Island, it felt almost like time travel in a way—
KH: You have to get on a ferry to get there, there’s no bridge—
KF: —and a ferry that only leaves once a day. So if you miss it, which I did —it’s definitely not New York or D.C! Once you got there, there was a thickness in the air that was reminiscent of history and legacy and folklore. There was a sense of agency, there was a sense of power, there was a sense of rootedness and culture, on this tiny island that’s only seven miles long. So how we’re able to translate that into the set design as this island that lives amongst itself but is cocooned, protected, surrounded by water. Something that struck me when we were driving around the island was the moss that was hanging on the trees and the second you get a breeze it’s like the trees are speaking to you. It was just fascinating to me. There’s something about the legacy and the stories that are held in that tree. So it’s picking up those real elements and seeing how to poetically translate them into our set design.
What has your collaborative process been like?
KH: We’ve worked together before so we have a wonderful working relationship. I trust Kamilah very much.
KF: What I appreciate about Katori and about having the writer in the room, with parts that are so personal, is to understand where these impulses came from can help further inform how I interpret the work.
What do you hope audience members will take away from this play?
KH: I hope everyone will be able to relate to the family struggle. Even in terms of how there’s a pecking order in every family, and whether you’re an only child or you have ten siblings, you’ll be able to recognize yourself on an intimate level. Then on a bigger level, the idea that there are these cultural wars that are going on and things need to be preserved. There’s so much power in cultural knowledge, and passing on of the blood memory of your people, of stories, of who you are. I feel like for a lot of African Americans that’s been erased from us, and so many of us have been struggling to pull that out of the sky. It’s beautiful to see this family because they have it. They have the pieces they’re pulling together to make a quilt. That’s beautiful and important. We need to continue to preserve the bits of culture that exist in all these different parts of the world.
KF: I believe there is a call to action, too, on a socio-political level. This family is trying to save their land. Every city that’s going through land being taken over, being sold to the highest bidder—it’s happening all over the country and all over the world. This play gives us that time, that moment to think and have that conversation and reevaluate our own value system of our relationship to land.
KH: And also the idea of slowing down, because we’re so hyper-connected. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, I find myself attached to my cell phone. The fact that I need my two hands to quilt, and I need to focus, it’s as if it’s meditation. The world falls away and I fall a bit deeper into myself. It’s helped me become a better writer, because I’ve started quilting. It’s about focus and craft and the line going in and out, in and out. I compare the needles to the words I put on the page. It’s one stitch at a time, one stitch at a time. And you have a quilt.
Do you quilt?
KH: I do. It’s so interesting, particularly in the South, the quilting language—from South Carolina to Texas—is the same. It’s a testament to how our culture has been able to disseminate itself over the generations, that it’s still protected through the language and preserved, the vocabulary of quilting, has been passed down, and spread around. My grandmother started teaching me this past year. I have a collection of quilts she’s made for me over the years. She basically made a quilt for me anytime there was something big—when I went to college, when I got married, when I had my baby. I was in LA last year the moment I actually decided “I’m going to learn how to quilt!” So I started taking classes from this quilting store in LA of all places because quilting is “in” now. And once I got those skills, I said, “Grandma, teach me how to do, because they was teaching me how to machine piece, but you know how to hand piece.” And so she taught me how to do it all by hand. She showed me this amazing quilt that she’s been working on for 68 years! It’s stunning. She’s 83 now and this is a life-long project. She’s finished over 100 quilts in her life, but this one is her masterpiece.
You work so hard at it and then you give it away. There’s this African witticism. I’m paraphrasing but it’s “as a candle, you burn yourself out to give light to others.” And I feel like that’s why we do what we do—so that we can expose worlds and stories, and make an impact. For me, it comes from storytelling. Maybe for someone else it’s knitting, maybe it’s making quilts.