A heart wrenching tale of tradition in ‘The Blood Quilt’

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A heart wrenching tale of tradition in ‘The Blood Quilt’
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/C. Stanley Photography)

Earth, wind and fire blew into town for the world premiere of “The Blood Quilt,” now playing at Arena Stage. Written by Katori Hall, who based the story on the Gullah Geechee culture of Sapelo Island, and directed by Kamilah Forbes, this soul-wrenching play is filled with the tears, anger and laughter of a family divided by distance and psychological baggage yet held together by the power of sisterhood.

Four sisters: Clementine, Gio, Cassan and Amber as well as Cassan’s daughter Zambia gather together on the windswept island of Kwemera, one of Georgia’s Sea Islands, and the African word for “endure.” The scene is the ancestral cottage of the Jernigans and home of their recently departed mother — a woman they both revered and feared.

Each summer, the women craft a new quilt, stitched together from clothing and rags handed down by family members. Woven into these quilts are their deepest memories, gut-wrenching hardships and personal failures. It is within these stitches that they tell their truths in a story as old as time and as foreseeable as the circle of life.

To provide the foundation for this story, it is important to know that hundreds of years ago, Geechee culture, as it is called, arrived by boat from West Africa onto these remote islands off the coast of Georgia. Slave ships bore men and women who were sold off to work on the islands’ rice plantations. After the Civil War, some of the freed slaves stayed behind, becoming landowners and raising generations of their own families. The dialect they spoke still is heard today and is echoed throughout the play.

Within this mysterious world, spiritualism, mythology and shibboleths run deep, influenced by the stars and the sea. These traditions provide a singularly rich backdrop for this comic drama, recalling the evocative film “Daughters of the Dust” that drew on the African-centric Gullah culture of North Carolina.

Much of the Geechee’s mysterious customs and rituals are threaded throughout this deeply affecting tale, reflecting a legacy of memories embodied by the fabric scraps incorporated into the quilts. The play turns on the question of who will inherit the one hundred precious quilts. And therein lies the rub.

Set designer Michael Carnahan has created a breathtaking stage set that features a simple cabin along a shoreline. An arc of waist-deep water frames the proscenium and patches of quilts hang from the rafters. Delicate Spanish moss sways over the rooftop and the whole is bathed in a roseate hue, courtesy of lighting designer Michael Gilliam. Snippets of old-time gospel music are sung in harmony, and the classic “I’ll Fly Away” evokes the confluence of church and tribal culture.

Clementine (Tonye Patano), who takes direction from the natural world, is the eldest. Assuming her new role as matriarch, she shushes and bosses her younger siblings around, insisting they carry out what she believes their mother would have wanted. “Mama was my god,” she reminds them.

But her interpretation is not borne out by their mother’s will. Meeya Davis plays Amber: “Perfection is my shield and my protection,” she reveals. A successful Hollywood attorney and Harvard grad, she has been given the responsibility of reading the will. Davis gives a razor-sharp performance with elegance and wit, balancing out Patano’s well-polished star quality.

Caroline Clay soars in the role of Gio, a tough talking, beer guzzling cop cursed with a chip on her shoulder as wide as the sea. But why?  Cassan (Nikiya Mathis) has brought her daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou), who is a hijab-wearing political activist just beginning to spread her wings. Bijou proves she is well up to the challenge of playing against such seasoned actors in a role that calls for her to be the polar opposite of the others.

The cast is tightly woven together in this haunting and hugely comical play filled with the ghosts of the past, the challenges of modern life and the guidance of an ancient culture imported from an Africa they never knew.

Through June 7 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, D.C. 20024. For tickets and information call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org. (On display throughout the run of the show are 17 contemporary quilts created by Joan Gaither of Baltimore.)

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