by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
In Katori Hall’s new play, The Blood Quilt, the Jernigan sisters reunite for their annual Quilting Circle. Only this year, the festivities are dampened by the fact that they just buried their mother three weeks ago. After a three-year absence, the youngest sister has come home, but not everyone’s happy to see her. The reading of their mama’s will sets off a chain reaction exposing long-kept secrets and lies, and threatens to irreparably tear the family apart. The Blood Quilt features five extraordinary actresses—Afi Bijou, Caroline Clay, Meeya Davis, Nikiya Mathis and Tonye Patano. I sat down with the ladies during previews to talk about their own family traditions and what it has been like to be part of such a powerful play. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
In The Blood Quilt, Katori writes that a circle of women is a powerful thing. For this production, the cast, playwright, director, choreographer and composer are all African American women—which we discovered early on was a first for all of you. How has that enriched the experience for you?
CC: The fact that I gave no thought to it until it was mentioned in rehearsal, is indication for me, that having women in charge, regardless of race: is divine order. Women of color being in positions of power and decision making is the environment in which I grew up, have been nurtured, mentored, and the mind-set out of which I create art. It is wonderful to see it reflected in this process.
NM: When you know they know where you’re coming from, there’s a language you automatically have. You don’t have to explain what you mean by something because they know it, they’ve lived it and experienced it. It’s made it easier to say what you feel in the room, without worrying that you’re going to be judged by it, whereas you might not say certain things in front of other people because you don’t want to be politically incorrect, but just to speak your truth from your experience, and I speak my truth from my experience, has been very helpful.
TP: Also the ability to allow yourself to be and remain vulnerable during this process has been valuable. I’ve been cracked open from day one and all the way through previews, all the way through. Being able to remain vulnerable without it feeling like you’ll be judged and allow that to help the process along. And also the playwright being vulnerable and the director being vulnerable without fear of judgement. It’s been a wonderful process that way.
MD: I would agree with Nikiya—just being able to be a black girl and speak and experience things the way a black girl does. Coming to the table and already speaking the same language gave us more time to think about the text and figure out what we’re supposed to be doing and who we’re supposed to be and how we interact. We all came in and we were joking and “girl bye” and we all know what that means. That language is known.
AB: What you said about being politically correct—either being politically correct or the perception of being politically correct—we often have to talk around things or not be direct and this piece of work requires you to be direct.
AB: It is so interesting that you ask that because I thought about that yesterday and it made me really sad because we don’t have any. When I was growing up, there was the tradition at Thanksgiving we would all go to my Uncle Prince’s, one of the only times that all the family members, at least in New York, would come together. But when he passed away, people didn’t uphold the tradition—people moved away or they passed away or are just no longer close—for whatever reason the tradition of family getting together in spite of what might be going on individually didn’t hold. When people left, they left. So I don’t have any traditions in my family anymore.
NM: My mother’s mother—my grandmother, my grandfather—used to always have Christmas and Thanksgiving at their house. They had six children and grandchildren, so we knew we would always go over there. They passed away and I feel like my mom is always trying to get her relatives together but then they got married to someone and they going over there and my cousins don’t care so you know it’s hard. I could see she gets hurt by that, because she grew up with her cousins. They all lived in the same projects in Jersey City. So what she knew was unification but after the passing, that separated. My mother’s mother crocheted, and my mother crochets, and I crochet a little but that’s a tradition my mother has taken from her mother and I wanna pick it up.
CC: Knowledge of ancestry is a cottage industry in my family. It is very important to both sides of my family that the members know from whence they came. On my mother's side—I descend from the slave "Bathsheba" who was brought from Sierra Leone and had three sons by her owner, a Scottish planter in Virginia named Hubbard. So strong are our Scottish roots, my grandpa was named Edinburgh. In The Blood Quilt, when Gio talks to Zambia on the dock about the ancestor Yahaya, I am filled with a gratitude that I can actually track my own roots before and beyond the Middle Passage. On my dad's side, I descend from African slaves in lower Mississippi, Irish immigrants, and members of the Choctaw Nation. The Clays are a family of storytellers, hard drinkers, and natural performers. We have met for family reunions every two years since before I was born. My dad's mother, "Mu'dear", had a 5th grade education and worked as a domestic for 50 years to a rich White family in Birmingham, Alabama. She was one of the most brilliant women I've ever met. She might not have had a lot of formal education, but like Mama Redell, there was nobody she wouldn't cook for, create with, pray for, or child she wouldn't help raise. With my grandpa, to whom she was married to for 52 years, she raised nine very successful children and 16 grandchildren. On both sides, there is an emphasis on education as being the key to access, power, and personal and collective freedom.
TP: What’s interesting now, with the advent of Facebook, is I see a resurgence of family members trying to reconnect, which is amazing in a way. Growing up, cousins were raised as siblings to some degree and Mama Gloria and Mam Geri and Mama Grace and Uncle Charlie, Big Terry, Little Terry, all of those things—you get to be a certain age and that stops and that’s sad. Also that tradition of going down south for the summer, so even though you grew up in the city, you were in the country picking Okra or doing whatever you do as a country gal. All of that was brought into this piece for me with Clementine; fighting for those traditions and revisiting those memories. It wasn’t something that was conscious, but I know it made me who I am and I do miss the fact that my nieces and nephews and cousins don’t get that. It’s missing from their lives.
MD: My mom and my grandmother, who is deceased, used to garden together, and when I used to go home I used to garden with her. I’ve mentioned it to these ladies and to my fiancé, but I wanna garden with my daughter. I really liked that time with my mom. I didn’t recognize what it meant, but for her to just plant something and see it bloom and let it grow, she was really proud of that. I liked how she felt. I liked helping her feel that way.
(Photos: Meeya Davis, Nikiya Mathis, Caroline Clay, Afi Bijou and Tonye Patano in The Blood Quilt. Tonye Patano and Meeya Davis in The Blood Quilt. Photos by C. Stanley Photography.)