Quilting the Sun review by Jackie Graves
Above: The cast of Quilting the Sun in NYC
Quilting the Sun, authored by the current poet laureate of Maryland, Grace Cavalieri, has had a checkered history getting to the stage. Originally written as a screenplay for the Smithsonian Institution in the 90’s, the project was indefinitely tabled as funding dried up. When the copyright reverted to Cavalieri, she rewrote it as a play and it was first scheduled to open in New York on September 12, 2001. It’s next production in the city was to happen when Hurricane Sandy happened instead and all plans were blown off course.
Thankfully, this time, all has gone well and New York audiences are able to enjoy the story of former slave and master quilter, Harriet Powers, and her family, struggling in the aftermath of Reconstruction. The play centers on the Bible Quilt that Harriet created out of the bits and pieces of her life (including the blue dress worn by her deceased infant daughter, Lizzie) and has made just for her. Yet, in 1886, she sold the quilt to art teacher, Jennie Smith, for half the asking price of $10.00.
The quilt, unfortunately not on display right now, is part of the Smithsonian’s collection and in 1990, the institution commissioned Cavalieri to come up with a reason that would have compelled Powers to part with her one cherished possession. Her husband, Armstead, (powerfully acted by Dan Kelley), sums it up succinctly – “it’s the only thing we got to sell.”
Bringing Quilting the Sun to the stage has been a labor of love for everyone involved and it shows in the enthusiasm and professionalism of all – special mention goes to Director Shela Xoregos, for her skillful direction of her cast and vision of a play that not only tells the story of a family and a time, but also of a culture.
From the start when Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr. walks onto the bare stage and tells us in a booming voice that “he is called the Jujuman because he can speak to the living and the dead,” we know that the next 90 minutes are going to be in part treading along the old paths of ancestral Africa; actors Mimi B. Francis as Harriet and Lydia Trueheart as Big Mama are sarcastic, funny, strong, and heart broken as they need to be as the matriarchs of the family; Sarah Kebede-Fiedler is deceptively sweet as Laura, who betrays Harriet and then seeks her help, and young Tyler Christian Nelson in his first professional play is truly engaging as Harriet’s son, Alonzo. Mary Tierney (Millie Rutherford), Liam Swan (Johnathan Crawford) and Taylor Lynne (Jennie Smith) are excellent in their portrayals of the white characters in the chiefly African American play.
The bare set, except for the few props that are brought on to the stage by the actors only helps to focus the audience on the strength and humor of the words that Cavalieri has written. The unspoken star and only real prop, the Bible Quilt created by Powers and recreated by master quilters Mary Campbell and Wendy Peck in 2011 for the play, appears onstage after the intermission.
The technical crew, always the unseen heroes of stage productions, consist of Nicole Carne for stage management and sound design; Will Knapp, prop design; Violet Wang, music director; Everett Clark, costume design, and Clarence Taylor, lighting design.
This is an insightful play, worthy of our attention. I highly recommend seeing it. Quilting the Sun is at the Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue at 10thstreet) as part of the 2019 Dream Up Festival season. The play will show through Sept. 11. Run time is 90-100 minutes with a 5-minute intermission. Tickets are $20 and are available online at brownpapertickets.com or by calling the reservations line at 212-254-1109.