Playwright Katori Hall is a quilter.
"It's a different way of being creative," Hall says. "I actually think it helps my writing. Because quilts can be about structure," and "about standing away and looking at something from afar when you're trying to figure out the overall design. And when I rewrite, that's kind of how I look at my play — I stand back and see how all the pieces are juxtaposed against one another. Are they in harmony? Then I go back and weave everything together."
She's talking about quilting because her new comedy-drama, The Blood Quilt, is premiering at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. "It's about four estranged sisters who get together for a quilting bee after their mother's death," says Hall, who's best known for The Mountaintop, which won London's Olivier Award as best new play in 2010 and went to Broadway in 2011 with Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King.
"The quilting bee turns into a reading of their mother's will," Hall says, "and a lot of secrets are exposed. It's like a cork pops in terms of the emotions the sisters have been sitting on. There's a catharsis of family." The play is set on an island off the Georgia coast, where the sisters grew up; Kamilah Forbes directs. Hall, 33, was introduced to quilting by her grandmother. "She's been quilting since she was a child, and every year she would give us a quilt she made over months and months. It's an art form I took for granted. I would say, oh, my grandmother does it; it's one of those old-fogey things that old women do. But in recent years there has been this trend of quilting among young folks. It's a new hobby across the country."
When Hall was living in Los Angeles, "I decided to take quilting lessons. And I came back to my grandmother and said, 'Okay, I took these lessons, but you have to tell me the real deal.' She taught me to hand-piece" — do everything by hand — "which I think is the really essential and remarkable way of putting together quilts."
Writing takes a huge part of Hall's life, she says, "and I'm very lucky I have something else that's creative but is another outlet. I like to be creative in all areas of my life — and my quilting hobby is a reflection of that."
And when it came to the play, "I really wanted to honor my grandmother and the dedication she's had" to this "beautiful art form."
But because this is Katori Hall writing, the play's not just about quilting. Like much of her work, it has an African-American theme.
"Anytime you put African-American bodies onstage, you're going to inevitably deal with the African-American experience. This play is focused on the female African-American experience. And it is extremely diverse."
"Others assume the African-American experience is monolithic," she continues. "That we think the same things, have the same political views. But with these sisters, one is a Republican, one a Democrat; one is light-skinned, one dark-skinned. They have different experiences because they look different. For me, the fact that none of these sisters look alike — they're actually half-sisters, all with the same mother — shows that how African-Americans look can actually change how they experience the world."
"One's agnostic, one believes in spirits and ghosts, another believes in God. They're very different, but they're all sisters. They're family. Part of the African-American experience is how you can be so diverse yet be so supportive of one another."