by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
Watching The Blood Quilt develop has been a truly fulfilling experience.
One of our inaugural Resident Playwrights, Katori Hall has been with us since we launched the program in 2010. Giving a play—and playwright—time to investigate and explore their work is at the heart of the new play process at Arena Stage. In 2013 we had a workshop of some scripts Katori was working on, including The Blood Quilt. By the end of the workshop, she had a draft of act one and some scenes of act two, which have evolved over the last two years into the powerful play now on stage.
The next two years saw two more workshops; countless dramaturgical conversations; casting sessions in DC and NY; a research trip to Sapelo Island, Georgia, which Katori’s Kwemera Island is based on; and the assembling of director and designers. Plus life events of marriages, births, and other plays to produce.
When rehearsals began, we discovered a magical energy around this show. This was the first time any of the artists could remember working on a show with an all-female, all-African American cast, playwright, director, choreographer, and composer. The ancestors were working in our favor, bringing together Katori’s prolific, poetic writing; the strong, guiding hand of director Kamilah Forbes; the fluidity of Camille Brown’s movement; and the earthy tones of Toshi Reagon’s vocals.
Weave in the familiarity and ease that the actresses brought to the table, and which mirrored the bonds of family depicted in Katori’s play.
Clementine (Tonye Patano), the wise one, the oldest, the one who stayed and carried on the traditions, but finds new hope in embracing change.
Gio (Caroline Clay), the rabble-rouser who puts on a great front and makes you believe nothing hurts her, but then surprises you with untapped depth and heart.
Cassan (Nikiya Mathis), the middle sister who plays peacemaker and gets taken for granted, but is the glue of the family.
Amber (Meeya Davis), the prodigal daughter who discovers you may not be able to go home again, but sometimes home finds you.
Zambia (Afi Bijou), the youngest who is able to see all the women for who they truly are as individuals, she who will carry on the story.
On the first day of rehearsal, Katori discovered something that led her to undertake a massive rewrite of act two—a key plot point needed to be revisited which would significantly impact all the character’s arcs and change the course of the entire play. She knew it was right to make the adjustment but it meant a rethink of how the rehearsal process would be focused. Rather than let the actors get attached to moments that would only change with rewrites, Kamilah decided to focus rehearsals solely on act one while Katori worked. It was both frustrating and exhilarating. How could the actors develop their characters if they didn’t know how their story ended? With the conclusion of the play unknown, Kamilah and the cast dove into their dramaturgical work on act one with an intensity I have never seen before. The typical week of table work expanded to a week and a half and moved from the table, to working on their feet, back to the table again. Questions were posed that required the kind of soul searching lesser artists would shy away from. But the payoff has been extraordinary.
Just as the Jernigan sisters quilt together their pieces, Katori worked fluidly with her words—adding information, cutting lines, rearranging sequences, taking a story from one sister and giving it to another, a piece of Jernigan history trading hands. Simultaneously, director Kamilah Forbes and the cast breathed life into these characters, while our designers and production staff created the world of Kwemera down to the smallest detail. The thoughtfulness, humor, passion, stubbornness, diligence, and dedication of these artists have brought this beautiful story to life in an unforgettable way.
Two years ago the conversation began with Katori and her words on the page. Under Artistic Director Molly Smith’s leadership, it then journeyed through the developmental process with American Voices New Play Institute Dramaturg Jocelyn Clarke, and into production with the cast and creative team, and continues now with you. Every great play was once a new play and every new play had that world premiere audience. They are not simple undertakings, birthing new plays. It is a bold artist—and audience—that not only accepts that challenge, but thrives on it. You are now part of the Jernigan story. You take a piece of Kwemera Island with you.
(Photos: Tonye Patano, Meeya Davis, Caroline Clay, Nikiya Mathis and Afi Bijou in The Blood Quilt. Caroline Clay and Afi Bijou with Nikiya Mathis in The Blood Quilt. Photos by C. Stanley Photography.)