God-Given to Create: “Quilting The Sun” at Theater for the New City
Quilting the Sun, by Grace Cavalieri, directed by Shela Xoregos, presented as part of the Dream Up festival
“The power is with us all the time, in the things we make with our hands.” These words are intoned by the Juju Man, aka Ole Uncle Jerry and the village preacher, (Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr.) who serves as Greek chorus in this Reconstruction-era drama set in Athens. Georgia and centered around the life of legendary quiltmaker Harriet Powers, in an opening speech that pulls this period piece into a timeless consciousness-raising sphere. Quilting the Sun’s author, Grace Cavalieri, is Maryland’s Poet Laureate and author of dozens of books of poetry and 20 short form and full-length plays. Her resume pervades this work in the way it oscillates between the archetypal and the specific with compelling fluency. This is unabashedly a theater of ideas, and although the structure is episodic and often heavily symbolic, with emblematically rendered speeches and set-to exchanges – schematic like the quilt itself! – the drama carries the audience along, especially in the tighter, more energized second act.
There is much back and forth in time as Harriet (Mimi B. Francis) and her ne’er do well philandering but loveable husband Armstead (Dan Kelley) wend their way to the purchaser of her quilt, a pained separation for Harriet who quilts in direct response to the voice of God and immortalizes a lost infant daughter in this particular piece. But bwhile it lays on thick the superstition of the black community (“We got Jesus and we got spells”) and the abject racism of their white overlords, and is set against the rise of the Klan, the play is as much about a collision of aesthetics as the usual antagonists of the Deep South. The idealistic, white young school mistress, Jennie Smith (Taylor Lynne), who teaches at the Lucy Cobb School for young ladies, is fresh back from Paris with ideas of L’art pour l’art. She is genuinely awestruck when she sees Harriet’s work. “Anyone can make something for the second time, but it’s God-given to create something original” she counters her skeptical school principal. At the county fair for colored folks she is introduced to Harriet and asks, “Miss Harriet Powers. Do you call this a quilt” “Yes I do,” replies Harriet. “I call it a quilt.” Jennie: “Well, I don’t. I call it a work of art.” Harriet doesn’t seem overawed by the compliment. Her quilt is then shown to the students and purchased by Jennie, though for half the $10 agreed. It hangs now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The production by Shela Xoregos and her company is energized by a fine ensemble cast led by Mimi Francis who strikes a masterful balance between the spiritual resignation and galvanic passion of her character. Cooksey and Kelley, in their more humorous character roles, are also engines of the performance, supporting nuanced interpretations by Lynne and by Sarah Kebede-Fiedler as a mischievous rival quilter. But arguably the real star here is the woefully underexploited silent role of the quilt itself, superbly reconstructed by Mary Campbell and Wendy Peck. I’d like to have seen a lot more of it: it has the power its maker would have wanted for it, of revelation.