If theater told more stories about black women, the scant few it does tell wouldn’t have to work so hard. But that’s a continent-sized “if.” Katori Hall is the Columbia, Harvard, and Julliard graduate who wrote The Mountaintop—a play that sought the man behind the myth of Martin Luther King Jr. She’s followed up that 2010 Laurence Olivier Award-winner (produced at Arena Stage two years ago) with an unwieldy new drama about four estranged sisters who return to their recently deceased mother’s home on Kwemera, a fictitious island off the coast of Georgia. It’s a place largely populated by Geechee people, also known as Gullah—descendants of enslaved Africans who have preserved their language and traditions for centuries. (There are smatterings of dialogue in Geechee; Robert Barry Fleming was the dialect coach.) The Jernigan sisters convene every summer to make quilts together, and their objets d’art are a sought-after commodity in certain circles, apparently. This year’s session is especially momentous because they aim to finish the piece their mother was working on when she died. The Jernigan women all have different fathers, but they’re still “hole sisters,” as bawdy sis Gio (Caroline Clay) observes, because they all came out of the same… anyway, she’s the crude one. Also a mean drunk. Also a cop.
Youngest sister Amber’s (Meeya Davis, who seems a little too young for the character) sensibilities are more refined. She’s a wealthy entertainment lawyer who skipped the last few reunions and worse, missed the flight that would’ve gotten her home in time for their mom’s funeral. (Also on the list of charges against her: She is, or until recently was, sleeping with a white guy.) The other two are Clementine (Tonye Patano), the calm, authoritative eldest, and Cassan (Nikiya Mathis), a nurse and former Army medic raising her 15-year-old daughter Zambia (Afi Bijou) largely without the aid of her oft-deployed husband. A once-a-day ferry is Kwemera’s only public link to the mainland, keeping the Jernigans confined together even when beefs both freshly fired and long-simmering make them want to flee. But once it becomes apparent that Hall has given every one of her characters a painful secret to be unearthed, and that she has no interest in prioritizing one above another, her play, so spiky and believable in its first hour, starts to feel schematic and overwrought. (Including a 15-minute intermission, The Blood Quilt runs about two hours and forty minutes, but the second act is longer than the first and more stymied by tentative pacing.) It would accomplish more by laboring less.
Kamilah Forbes’ direction is impartial to a fault, too. For example, when Mathis’ character finds a stack of old letters in a bedroom adjacent to where the scene proper is being played, Forbes keeps her fully lit, letting us watch the actor pretend to read in silence for several minutes. This makes the spoken scene unfolding simultaneously almost impossible to follow because we’re too busy wondering what anguished revelation will emerge from those letters. It helps, or rather doesn’t, that Mathis’ performance is subtle where Clay’s is rowdy. Her silence really is louder than words.
No one could blame Hall and Forbes for being so tired of seeing black women relegated to secondary (or tertiary, or nonexistent) roles that they can’t bear to make any of their own characters secondary, even in a play populated solely by black women. It’s an understandable flaw, but one that holds their show back being from being as sharp and powerful as it could be.
Michael Carnahan’s split-level set makes the old house on the water look at once remote and cozy, while Michael Gilliam’s lighting scheme lends the place an otherworldly hue once the sun sets. Paul Wahler of Theatrical Pools gets thanked in the program for an onstage pond (!) that enables a magical-realist finale whose moorings to the show still feel a little unsteady. The Blood Quilt could still become a staple, though, if Hall can find it in her heart to be a little more merciless.
1101 6th St. SW. $45–$110. (202) 488-3300. arenastage.org.