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In the Garage on Fanning Street, located in a tucked-away sector of downtown Wilmington, Mouths of Babes Theatre Company (MoB) closed its premiere run of Quilt Stories: A Remembrance Play. This stirring and original work of documentary theatre presents the stories of people who participated in one of the world's largest pieces of folk-art, people who also endured the pain and grief of losing a loved one to AIDS.
Written and directed by Trey Morehouse, who also serves as artistic director for the non-profit theatre company, Quilt Stories unfolds through a compilation of monologues, transcribed from interviews Morehouse conducted during the last several years. Morehouse began collecting stories from people who lived with AIDS, or who lost someone to AIDS as part of his work on another MoB original play, OUT, NC, which explores the process of coming out as LGBTQ in the South. During this process, he noticed that a person's HIV status often plays a large part in their integration into queer culture. His curiosity was furthered by the reverence people have when opening up about AIDS. "There's a texture and feeling that comes out when people talk," he said.
After compiling all the interviews, he weaved them together into a beautifully arranged script. It's not just informative and insightful, but sorrowful, moving, and profoundly human. The patchwork array of monologues, stitched together so precisely, evokes the National AIDS Memorial Quilt itself.
The play begins with Lonnie, played by Samantha Wendell, who tells the story of her friendship with Hector, a gay Cuban man living in San Francisco, who drank Cuban coffee and smoked Cuban cigars. Windell brought an innocence to Lonnie, foregrounding the woman's love and admiration for her lost friend. We later hear from Gert McMullin, played by Em Wilson. McMullin, often referred to as "Mother of the Quilt," lost so many loved ones to AIDS and has personally stitched an astonishing number of panels. Wilson played Gert with authority and authenticity, she stood and spoke like someone who organized one of the biggest political art works in American history.
Through Gert and other characters, the play presents a great amount of rich historical detail. It hits on historical touchstones, such as Reagan's refusal to publicly speak about the AIDS crisis, nurses wearing "moonsuits" out of fear and ignorance of transmissibility, and the Lesbian Care Teams that formed to care for those who couldn't afford sustained medical treatment.
The set design, by Akira Collins, featured a series of white panels near the back of the stage, onto which historical footage, photos, and animations (by Rilee Knott and Maxwell Reinbachs) were projected to further situate the audience in the emotion and reality of the situation.
Other characters included Lisa and Erin Coats, played by Dylan Dillahunt and Sebrina Brooks, respectively. Dillahunt and Brooks had an easygoing, sisterly connection, which gave their characters a sense of intimacy and reality. The Coats sisters created a quilt panel for their father, who came out as gay later in life as the girls were growing up. They recount their experience with their parents' divorce, their father's struggle with — and recovery from — alcohol abuse, and their catharsis upon designing and creating a quilt panel. It was especially rewarding to see the real-life Lisa and Erin greet the actresses after the show.
Many characters described their process of making the panel. LeShonda Wallace, played by Lavonia "Lovay" Robinson, talks about how her mother always wore her natural hair, which was not as common among Black women during the '80s and '90s as it is today. LeShonda's panel shows a cutout of her mother's profile, strong and beautiful. She noted how it was important to find a material that would mimic her mother's hair on the panel as a statement of pride and remembrance. Robinson played LeShonda with grace and wisdom. She said afterwards that Wallace's story illuminated how much stigma affects the way people talk — or don't talk — about AIDS. There is a unique stigma attached to Black women who contract the virus, a cause that LeShonda has taken very seriously in the wake of her mother's experience. Wallace started Seeds of Healing (SoH, Inc.) to raise awareness around women with HIV and AIDS. Although comprising nearly a quarter of all people living with HIV in the United States, women often don't get recognized in the conversation, or are accused of promiscuity and loose morals.
Every character was on stage the entire time. When not speaking, they sat at sewing machines and work stations, playing with quilting materials and assembling their own patterns. As they worked, they listened warmly to one another, nodding affectionately every now and then. Modeled after the quilt-making workshops that help people express their grief and love in this way, the entire theater felt like a safe space, or a group therapy session. And it was just as rewarding.
While Mouths of Babes is generally geared toward young artists, one of the performers was noticeably older than the rest. Quentin Proulx, who played Jeff Mills, reached out to MoB when he heard about this production. His brother died of AIDS in 1991, and he felt that he had to be a part of telling this story because he lived it. Proulx kept a photo of his brother's panel at his quilt station during the performance. This continual proximity to real life made Quilt Stories vividly personal and profoundly universal.
Somewhat providentially, the play debuted shortly after Cameron Art Museum's recent exhibition of the AIDS Quilt. The characters in Quilt Stories are many of the same people who made panels that were on display at CAM. The panels made by Wilmington artists were done in memory of Reed Coats, Luwanda "Pumpkin" Daniels, Frank W. Roth, and S. Craig Riddle. Morehouse played Jerry Lynn Marshall, who had a summer fling with Riddle while studying abroad in Europe as young men. Having been so touched by this panel at the CAM exhibition, I was especially delighted to hear more details about the story.
Morehouse said that he hopes to submit Quilt Stories to drama festivals in an effort to raise awareness and attract a larger audience. Right now, Mouths of Babes is workshopping another original theatre piece about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898. You can support these and other future, meaningful works by donating on Mouths of Babes' website.