How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Factory Theatre, Toronto, until March 5, 2017
You could take the word Black out of the title of Trey Anthony’s play and it would still stand for the story she’s written. The strengths of How Black Mothers Say I Love You are at once its specificity and its universality, its personal and its political significance.
The play was inspired by the story of Anthony’s Jamaican grandmother who left children behind to seek a better life for them in England. To earn the money to reunite her family she swept the floors of the trains in the London transit system. It’s a familiar story in Canada, where in 1955, the federal government introduced a program to admit domestic workers with a promise of landed immigrant status. Successive generations of children left behind have felt the sting of separation and sense of abandonment.
This very well made play, directed by Trey in collaboration with Nisha Ahuja, runs on the emotional wars between a mother and her daughters, especially her eldest daughter. Claudette (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) won’t let her mother Daphne (Ordena Stephens-Thompson) ever forget the six years when she and her little sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) were left behind with their grandparents while their mother went to Toronto and worked three jobs to give them a better life than the one she’d had as one of nine children living in a shack in Jamaica.
And now there’s another reunion, as Claudette comes home to Toronto from Montreal because her mother is dying of cancer. A new rift has opened between Bible-thumping mother and her eldest daughter, over Claudette’s sinful choice to love a woman. (Daphne to Claudette: “Stop acting like a man instead of trying to get one.”)
Death casts a long shadow in this play, not just Daphne’s imminent demise, but the earlier passing of her youngest daughter Chloe (Beryl Bain), a sickly child she had with a Toronto man after immigrating from Jamaica. The dead sister becomes more cause for Claudette’s resentment; she says of her mother, “she’d rather die and be with Chloe than live and stay with us.” Life is falling apart for everyone in this family – Valerie’s marriage to a wealthy white man is failing – and instead of pulling together, these women are duking it out with each other.
This show is no tragedy, though. Like Anthony’s rollicking da Kink in my Hair there’s much fun, song and dance, rolling out with an opening exchange between Valerie and Claudette about their mother’s obsession over the hat Miss Esme wore in her coffin. She may be refusing medical treatment, but Daphne ain’t going nowhere until they’ve obtained the perfect hat for her to wear at her funeral.
The staging of How Black Mothers, which had a good run last year, doesn’t leave much to argue with. Rachel Forbes’ set, costume and props are echt 80s Toronto. Michael Jackson and reggae discs on the turquoise walls of the teens’ room; Christ portraits and porcelain flowers in the yellow-painted kitchen. Gavin Bradley composed an original score that weaves together scenes that wouldn’t ordinarily occur in the same play: from gospel singing, say, we switch to meal preparation.
The actors are all superb, especially Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Daphne. Her role calls for grief, denial, anger, evangelical zeal, cheekiness and, finally, unbridled love for her daughters. She strikes the right note every time.
Trey Anthony has exceeded her expertise, however, by including dance. Some of the more organically occurring production numbers, such as the sequence of trying on outrageous hats, work. But the interpretative dance bits — the opening scene of women with suitcases and Chloe’s ghostly appearances with a violin bow — are embarrassing. Dancers trying to sing or vocalize can be cringe-inducing. The same goes for actors attempting modern dance.
How Black Mothers Say I Love You
Writer, director, executive producer – Trey Anthony
Actors – Beryl Bain, Allison Edwards-Crewe, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Ordena Stephens-Thompson
Set design – Rachel Forbes
Lighting design – Steve Lucas
Music and sound design – Gavin Bradley
Choreography – Irma Villafuerte
Photography – Joseph Michael