NEGRO ENSEMBLE PRESENTS NY PREMIERE OF “GRANDMA'S QUILT” MARCH 11-21

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["Grandma's Quilt"\Negro Ensemble Company]
This is the play's New York premiere. It was developed in Kalamazoo's Whole Art Theater in the 90's. It toured the country, including some university theaters, in the early 2000s under the aegis of Woodie King Jr.'s National Black Touring Circuit.
Photo: Jonathan Slaff

In "Grandma's Quilt" by Karen A. Brown, an elderly poor, unpretentious Black woman in rural Arkansas is sewing a quilt as the final act of her life.

Each scrap of material is a prism into a chapter of her family's past. As she reflects on each period, she transforms into younger versions of herself to lead us through the history that she intends to pass on to her granddaughter. One actress portrays the old woman at six points in her life as well as the granddaughter.

Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. will present the play's New York premiere March 11 to 21 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place, performed by author Karen A. Brown. Director is Anthony J. Hamilton.

Playwright/actor Karen A. Brown is Executive Artistic Director of The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. She relates that the play was born a generation ago when she was a producing playwright and had her own theater in Kalamazoo, Michigan that worked closely with senior and youth service organizations. Having just closed one of her own shows, she was keen to do a Mother's Day celebration at a senior center for people who didn't have anyone to celebrate with. So she established a dinner with small performances for the ladies there. They had a quilting class and were about to discard a quilt that the residents had made. Brown saw history in the pieces of the quilt; it looked to her like someone at the end of her life had put all her stories into the patchwork. She went home and wrote this play, filling it with stories from both sides of her own family plus large amounts of pure imagination. The quilt from that nursing home is the central prop of this production.

This is the play's New York premiere. It was developed in Kalamazoo's Whole Art Theater in the 90's. It toured the country, including some university theaters, in the early 2000's under the aegis of Woodie King Jr.'s National Black Touring Circuit.

The play begins in of the 1920’s, winds through two World Wars, explores the innocence of America in the 40’s and 50’s, and completes in the 1990s. The setting is the interior of a rustic log cabin home in the early 20th century. It changes to a different, larger cabin as the play progresses. A grandmother named Ethlene Ramsey slowly picks up rags and sews them into a quilt as she shares with the audience the memories that lay within each tattered piece of cloth. The story begins with the Great Depression and how it affected her family. "The depression didn’t mean much for us colored folks in the South," she relates. "We were in pretty much the same shape the day after the stock market crashed as we were the day before. It was just another hungry day. If you ain't never had nothin', you ain't got nothin' to lose." She laughs heartily at the irony in that statement, but laughter turns to tears as she tells the horrifying story of the murder of her family by "white sheet men" as she stands by helplessly, then escapes to hide in a nearby creek. She is rescued by a woman she calls Aunt Mavis and goes on to live a beautiful life despite her tragedy. She marries Aunt Mavis' son and has children, including a daughter who achieves a "P.H. and D" and who has a daughter of her own, Felicia, for whom this quilt is intended as a Christmas present.

Grandma’s strength is her humanity and ability to survive; to hope, to love, and to just carry on. Her quilt is significant, her story universal and her message inspirational.

Brown relates that it was not her goal, when she started, to write a one-person show in the autobiographical performance art style that was popular at the time. With "Grandma's Quilt," she aimed to follow the "textbook well-made play form that we all learn in class" for a drama with classical structure to be performed by one person.

Ms. Brown began as an actor and performed with the Kalamazoo Civic and Western Michigan University. She began her career in theater/arts administration with the Kalamazoo Civic Theater in the early eighties. In 1983, she was producing/director of the Theatre Arts and Broadcasting Skills Center, a Chicago-based production company touring theatrical productions and creating and performing scripts for television and video. After moving to New York, Ms. Brown worked with The American Place Theatre's Urban Writes program as a teaching artist, producing theatrical scripts with middle and high school children.

In 2001, she became Associate Producer for the National Black Touring Circuit, Inc. and taught playwriting and marketing with Ensemble Studio Theatre. In 2004, she relocated to Bakersfield, CA, where she led the Spotlight Theater School for the Performing Arts and worked as a teaching artist with several organizations. Returning to Kalamazoo in 2005, she worked as a screen and stage writer and arts administrator for four organizations. She became Executive Director of The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. in 2013 after service as its program and fund developer, and has led the organization since the death last year of Artistic Director Charles Weldon. She holds a BA in English from Western Michigan University and MA from Miami of Ohio with dual majors in Theatrical Directing and Theatre and Arts Management.

Director Anthony J. Hamilton is also a choreographer and an actor. He trained at Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training (MFA Theatre) and Western Michigan University (BA Theatre Studies). In 2019, he was honored with a Best Choreography award for "Once on this Island" at Kalamazoo Civic Theatre by Broadway World Regional Awards (he was director and co-choreographer of that production). His stage directing credits also include regional productions of "Joseph/Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Justice For Maurice Henry Carter" and "A Raisin in the Sun." This is his NY debut.

Set Designer is Chris Cumberbatch. Costume design is by Katherine Roberson. Lighting design is by Melody A. Beal. Sound design is by David Wright.

Previews are Wed., 3/11 & Th., 3/12 at 7:00 PM. Production opens Fri., 3/13 at 7:00 and runs through Sat., 3/21 on the following schedule: Thur. & Fri. at 7:00, Sat. and Sun. at 3:00 & 7:00. Tickets are $25, students/seniors $20. Buy tickets at: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1026234, tel. 866-811-4111.

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