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BWW Interviews: THE BLOOD QUILT's Nikiya Mathis and Afi Bijou Talk Arena Stage's World Premiere of Katori Hall's New Play

It's evident upon meeting up with Nikiya Mathis (left) and Afi Bijou (below, right) to talk about their roles in Arena Stage's world premiere production of The Blood Quilt, currently in previews, how much they love what they do. Some tangible evidence? The women gave up a good part of their dinner break on one of the final days of rehearsals to talk with me.

The Blood Quilt playwright Katori Hall, 34, is a Juilliard and Columbia University graduate, as well as an Olivier Award winner for her play The Mountaintop (which ran on Broadway during the 2011-12 season, starring Samuel L. Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr.). In The Blood Quilt, she gives us a story of family, in all of its glory, with its function, dysfunction, and ultimately, humbling nature.

The symbolism of "Blood" in the title is evident, as four sisters (ranging in age from late forties to mid-twenties), and one of the sister's teenage daughter, come together for the annual gathering to work on their mother's quilting project. This year however, things are different; their mother has passed, this is the last quilt to be finished; and as with any work involving a sharp needle and thread, a bit of pain might be expected.

Nikiya plays Cassan the third daughter, and Afi plays her daughter, Zambia, and each talks enthusiastically about how resonant this story is to them, and to all of us.

Afi explains, "like all families, this one is extremely functional in its dysfunction...it speaks to sisters, and the connection that sisters have...they are aunts, mothers, best friends sometimes, rivals sometimes, and [in The Blood Quilt] the dialogue and the text are amazing, beautiful and strong." Nikiya goes on to talk about what happens when the sisters gather for this final quilting circle: "there's this raw emotion bubbling, and secrets, and all the feelings about being a mother, the joys & pains...it's clearly about motherhood, but also daughterhood, that moment you realize your mother was not just a mother, but a woman."

Both said that the script has changed a great deal since last fall, when each first became involved through auditions and readings. For example, Afi's character, Zambia has aged two years, from thirteen to fifteen, a change, all three of us agreed, that is much more significant than two years might suggest: "her development has changed, relationships have changed...it's not the same character as when I auditioned," smiles Afi.

Hall is known for writing stories reflecting a strong African American voice, and creating roles for African American women, for which she has said there are far too few. But given the universal themes, certainly not limited to African American families, or any particular type of family, I wanted to know these actors' thoughts on why it matters who's telling a story, or whose voice we are hearing.

"These are universal stories," says Afi, "but it's the way in which the themes are woven together that makes it important as to who is telling the story. Me, as a black woman in America, at my age, with my friends, and my family, that makes the story interesting. Sometimes stories don't encompass the complexity of who we are as people [African Americans], the fabric of our culture, how tangible it is, and sometimes how completely intangible it is, or maybe how spiritual, with the folklore, all of these old tales, stories which may or may not have happened. The connections come from wherever you are, how the voices are woven together, with the pieces of people's experiences and cultures."

Tonye Patano as Clementine, Meeya Davis as Amber, Caroline Clay as Gio, Nikiya Mathis as Cassan and Afi Bijou as Zambia n Katori Hall's The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage.
Photo by C. Stanley Photography

While this is Afi's first experience with Katori Hall's work, Nikiya was involved in an early workshop of Pussy Valley (which premiered in Minneapolis this past week as a full production) in which she played a stripper named Miss Mississippi. Nikiya laughs delightedly, "it was so much fun! I'd never even been to a strip club...so to play a woman so uninhibited with her body is so fun!" and then, more seriously: "it was a chance to dispel the stereotype of what a stripper might be; in the end, she's a woman, a human being, and the question is why is she stripping?"

Not surprisingly, and in a testament to the importance of the arts when we're young, we can thank some teachers for this opportunity to see Nikiya and Afi on stage. Afi is from the Bronx, and credits accomplished Bronx actress, pianist, dancer and more, Lola Louis, with first seeing her potential. Louis, who taught piano to the neighborhood kids and then started an acting troupe for them, "had us very Saturday and Sunday doing monologues, and then put together a show called The Children's Legacy, about African children coming over to America on slave ships, which was then produced Off Broadway." Louis told Afi's mother that she should think about getting Afi into theater, and within about a month, Afi had an agent and was making her Broadway debut, at the age of eight, in the original Broadway cast of Once on This Island [alongside Jerry Dixon and LaChanze, who just finished playing major roles in last season's If/Then on Broadway].

Nikiya, born in Atlanta and raised in New Jersey, started as a young poet, whose first poem as a sixth grader [about heaven] was so good, she remembers, her teacher created quite a stir when she didn't believe Nikiya had written it herself. Luckily, that challenge didn't stop Nikiya from going on to win a poetry contest the following year, and, at the encouragement of another teacher, she joined the drama club, and started performing her poetry for audiences. She still considers herself a writer at heart, and says that her focus now is "more faith-based plays; faith is really important to me, and I'm living in a world that pulls me in different directions....I'd like to build a bridge between the secular world and the spiritual world, not just for Christians, or anyone in particular...I just don't want to have to leave faith out of it."

Afi would like to write more as well: "I write for myself...poetry, music, but I want to write a script...having seen the process though, it can be overwhelming, how long it takes, rewrites, etc...but people have an idea about you in the world of art..and there's often a bunch of people across a table deciding your fate for you...so I want to create something, whether I'm in it or others are in it so that I can see what I want to take place, and follow that through."

Back to The Blood Quilt, I wanted to know if they had a favorite scene or moment in the play. After giving it some thought, both agreed that Cassan and Zambia's major scene together as mother and daughter stood out. For Afi's part, she says "in the first act I don't really say a lot, but then [in this scene] for the first time I'm able to take all of the stuff I've been seeing and hearing, and am able to speak honestly...I have to, because I'm not happy with what's going on [with her mother]...I see more for her, and I'm tired of her telling me things are a certain way when they're not...it's a very honest, honest scene."

Photo by C. Stanley Photography

And Nikiya immediately agrees, "it's so honest! It's that moment when your mother has to tell you the truth, and stop pretending she's superwoman or that she is perfect and that you have to follow in her footsteps when in fact you are doing all the things she did when she was young...she has to admit that and validate your experience, show her own vulnerability and weakness...the daughter becomes the mother in a way, the roles flip flop in an amazing way...because as much as she needs me, I need her, not just for companionship, but I need her to survive in this world...woman to woman, not just mother and daughter...it shows how important and valuable womanhood is," And Afi adds "as Zambia, I make her perform as a mother in ways her mother couldn't for her."

What do Afi and Nikiya hope audiences will take away from the experience of seeing The Blood Quilt?

Nikiya reflects that "we all have people in our families that we wish would act differently, but maybe we're more alike than different...maybe they're acting up because of deep hurt, and if we can connect, open up to them, and allow ourselves to hear, we may be able to heal each other. For example, in the play one of the sisters, Gio, may appear to be easily dismissible, but she has so much depth and wisdom. Same with Zambia, who's of this generation, and speaking in ways Cassan has no idea about...so much wisdom that comes out of her."

And speaking very much as that now grown "wise child" in real life, Afi wants people to try and see children for who they are, and not just for who we might want them to be: "[Zambia] sees what her mom is capable of, and wants more for her than she can see for herself...as the child, people need to respect their visions, understand that they see more than what they're given credit for...they may not be really angry with you, they can be objective, and are not cluttered up with life yet...they can see in black/white, because they're not yet bombarded with so many things that might cause them to be jaded."

Given all of the rumbling emotions and undercurrents running through The Blood Quilt, it seems right that Nikiya took a deep breath of thought when I asked if she had one word to describe the play, and answered: "Inhalation"... "In the sense that it takes us a long time to exhale...we're building, building, building, building; and then when you get to the release, you need it."

(L to R) Afi Bijou, Meeya Davis, Nikiya Mathis, Caroline Clay and Tonye Patano in Katori Hall's The Blood Quilt at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater April 24-June 7, 2015.
Photo by Tony Powell

Katori Hall's The Blood Quilt is currently in previews, and officially opens on May 7, 2015. Find out more about this world premiere show, and book tickets at http://www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season/productions/the-blood-quilt/.


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