Nikiya Mathis (Cassan), Tonye Patano (Clementine), Meeya Davis (Amber), Afi Bijou (Zambia), and Caroline Clay (Gio) in Katori Hall's The Blood Quilt, directed by Kamilah Forbes, at Arena Stage.
Nikiya Mathis (Cassan), Tonye Patano (Clementine), Meeya Davis (Amber), Afi Bijou (Zambia), and Caroline Clay (Gio) in Katori Hall's The Blood Quilt, directed by Kamilah Forbes, at Arena Stage.
(© C. Stanley Photography)

If an award were given for Most Unusual Play Setting, it would certainly go to Arena Stage's world premiere of The Blood Quilt. Resident playwright Katori Hall writes about four sisters of the Jernigan family who gather every year on Kwemera Island, off the coast of Georgia, in the family home where they grew up. The purpose of the meeting every year is to create a new quilt, but this year the quilt will be special: It will honor the girls' mother, who has recently died. In fact, the quilting bee turns into an exchange of information among the women about themselves, their personal lives, their successes and failures. More significantly, it turns into a reading of their mother's will, and the sisters must come to terms with the difficult legacy she has left them.

Three of the sisters, Clementine (Tonye Patano), Gio (Caroline Clay), and Cassan (Nikiya Mathis), are already on the island at the beginning of the play, along with Cassan's 15-year-old daughter, Zambia (Afi Bijou). There is camaraderie at the beginning of the play among the three sisters, revealing the love and closeness they feel for one another. But with the arrival of the fourth and youngest sister, Amber (Meeya Davis), the tone in the living room on Kwemera Island cools suddenly. Amber has missed her mother's funeral, although she is rich and could have flown to Georgia in time for it. She is clearly different from her sisters. She went to college and graduate school, became a lawyer, and now works in a large California law firm. Her sisters are simple and dress as the islanders do. Amber arrives wearing an elegant suit and an expensive blond wig.

While the second act involves the four sisters revealing secrets about their lives that the others never knew before, the main storyline follows the resolution of the play's central crisis: the fact that there are over $256,000 in unpaid taxes on that house that everyone adores. When Amber comes up with a solution, however, it almost seems too easy. But there is a power among this combination of siblings that allows the audience to feel whatever they decide, they will ultimately succeed as a united front.

Patano portrays the oldest daughter beautifully, as a powerful, emphatic mother figure, who rules the house as definitively as her own mother did. Clay, as the second sister, is the polar opposite to Clementine. Her Gio is a comic figure who continually smokes pot, drinks beer, and makes off-color jokes. Mathis turns in a fine performance as the level-headed third sister, the sensible sibling who has a realistic attitude to life. Bijou is entertaining as Cassan's opinionated and free-spirited daughter who declares she wants to be a Muslim and tells Amber that she is a lesbian. The role of Amber is a sensational one, given the way it contradicts the roles of her sisters. Despite the fact that Davis' voice occasionally sounds thin, she certainly looks different from the others and immediately becomes an inspiration to Zambia. And Davis is completely convincing when she tells her sisters things about their mother's last wishes that later turn out to be questionable.

Director Kamilah Forbes keeps the long and sometimes complicated story moving swiftly. Michael Carnahan's predominantly orange set shows the living room and two bedrooms in the Jernigan home. There are quilts everywhere. Downstage, there is a large rectangular pool of water, used to represent the sea. Michael Gilliam's lighting design creates longs swaths of Spanish moss outside the windows. Dede Ayite's colorful costumes perfectly highlight the difference between fashionable Amber and her unsophisticated sisters.

There is marvelous music throughout the play (by composer Toshi Reagon), most of it chanted by the actors themselves. Hall, Forbes, and the actresses effectively emphasize the ritual and spiritualism that is embedded so deeply in the island. In one of the final scenes, the women lift up the finished quilt, take it to the seashore, and let it drift away into the ocean, chanting "Hallelujah." It is a fitting end to a play about a complicated family patched together by the determination of four resilient sisters.