Quilting the Sun: Journey of a Play
By Grace Cavalieri
From my house in West Virginia to the Wings Theater in New York City is only a few hundred miles, but it took years to reach the destination.
Preparing a play for a professional reading takes longer than training for the Olympics. With my play Quilting the Sun, the writing took ten years. It took an additional two years, 2000-2002, to get the play mounted so that producers could see it.
In 1990, the Smithsonian Institute and the Visual Press of the University of Maryland commissioned me to write a television screenplay inspired by a magnificent quilt, made by former slave Harriet Powers, that hangs in the Smithsonian. Harriet Powers’ quilts are closer in appearance to Picasso’s work than to the story quilts of the post Civil War South. (Another Powers quilt is owned by the Boston Museum of Art.)
Although we knew little of Powers’ life, we felt that her story should be told. The facts we knew were these: She lived from 1837 to 1911. She was married to Armstead Powers and had children. She sold her quilt to Jennie Smith, a white schoolteacher from Athens, Georgia for five dollars, half the asking price. Not enough, perhaps, to fill a 90-minute program for public television, but it was an intriguing start.
The need to buy white man’s medicine would be the reason for conflict, I decided. I would build the universe around this and populate it with characters. Five of them truly existed: Harriet Powers, her husband Armstead, her son Alonzo, Jennie Smith and the headmistress of the school where Jennie taught art, Miss Millie Rutherford. The rest I would imagine.
One crucial bit of information we had uncovered was that Harriet showed her quilt at the “Colored Fair” in Athens in 1886. This might have been where Jennie Smith discovered it. I narrowed my time frame to a three-year time period and began to create the world of Georgia in the South during the years 1883-1886.
The producers wanted additional themes and subplots. Jennie Smith’s brother Winston Wales was added, along with a lynching and many other digressions from the quilt story.
When the play was complete, the search for funding began. Ten years ago, a 90-minute period piece on public television would have required at least a million dollars; we couldn’t find that amount. The producers began to spin off documentaries, hoping to recover the hard-earned material for television use.
In 2000, the copyright, according to the contract, reverted to me as the author. I did not stay up late at night waiting for this to happen, but I noticed the fact with interest, and spoke to a New York director who had previously directed a play of mine. She suggested that I rewrite the screenplay for the stage.
Plays rarely come from film scripts, although it is common to go from theater to film. But going from film to stage presents problems in scope, point of view and the expansion of time. I didn’t know where to begin. The screenplay had a large cast of characters. It could take advantage of aerial views and panoramic scenes help tell the story. Now I needed to think vertically, not horizontally, compressing the story to fit a specific space with only the characters necessary to tell the story. I felt like Harriet might have felt ripping stitches out of her quilt.
The preliminary reading was scheduled for September 12, 2001. I approached the city on September 11 and, of course, immediately returned home. That reading was rescheduled for November 7 at the Columbia Branch Library on Tenth Avenue. This was in preparation for the showcase reading on March 15, 2002 at the Wings Theater on Christopher Street in the West Village. All these activities were made possible in part by a Professional Development grant from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts. Without this help, the pages would still be sitting on my desk, and I would be no closer to seeing my play in action than I was in 1980.
For the November reading, I had whittled down the play to twelve characters and removed all material but the basic story of Harriet’s life. I thought I needed every single character on stage, and couldn’t believe it when I was told that a play with twelve characters wouldn’t find production at this time in history. Somehow I was able to kill off three, but I held the line at nine.
I don’t consider my wastebasket a holy receptacle, but it was becoming a character bigger than the others. In my office is a trunk where I had 2,000 versions of this play in its various guises. There were to be more.
Thanks to my Professional Development grant, the director who had originally encouraged me was hired to stage my reading. We sent invitations, wrote personal notes, and made phone calls. On March 15, the small theater in the West Village was filled for a showcase reading. The audience liked what it saw and heard that day, and showed its appreciation in a heartwarming way.
What did I learn? That there is more writing to be done: Two of the professional pundits at the viewing claimed the play was too episodic. (I thought it was a patch-work quilt; I liked that quality.) I will now rewrite to develop a “through-line of narration,” stitching it even more closely. And I know that when it finally reaches production, even more rewrites will occur during rehearsals.
After the March reading, four viewers requested scripts. Now, weeks later, the phone does not ring, the mailbox is empty and the clock on the wall is ticking. But I hear the voice of Harriet in my ear, telling about selling her quilt: “I didn’t lose anything. I can begin again.” And I hear my own voice answering, when asked why I wrote this play: “Like Harriet, I know about loss.”
And, like Harriet, I have not “lost” a moment of my life writing this play. I am sure that Quilting the Sun will receive a full production. I’ll be going back to New York City soon. I know it. As Harriet Powers said, “God tole me to make this one.”
Grace Cavalieri is a poet and playwright. She has had 18 plays produced throughout the country, including three that received full production in New York (at the Quaigh, WPA, and Common Basis Theaters).