“I love you” was all they ever wanted to hear.
Simple… but, alas, not easy.
Expressions of love and the vulnerable self are at the heart of Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Black Theatre Workshop‘s second mainstage offering for its 48th season, and which now runs at the Centaur Theatre until March 16th.
It’s a stirring story of complex family dynamics and relationships that rings true and resonates deep for any who have ever been confronted with great choices of compromise and self-sacrifice.
Based on Anthony’s own experiences and situated in the context of Canada’s West Domestic Scheme immigration program in the 60’s, the play depicts the aftermath of a Jamaican mother’s decision to emigrate to Ontario while leaving her two school-aged children behind in their home country – all in the hopes of building a better future for her cherished offspring.
Life abroad has presented its own share of problems for the clan, however, as the headstrong Daphne (Andrea Davis), who’s been battling cancer, struggles to emote and connect with her now adult kin. Proud, self-sufficient, and doctrinal in her ways, her ideologies and values as a devout Evangelical Christian clash with those of her homosexual eldest daughter, Claudette (Dayane Ntibarikure), estranged from family but who has here made the effort to travel from Montreal to visit her terminally ill parent.
Harbouring bitter resentment from her mother’s abandonment decades ago and raw from the end of a romantic relationship, Claudette finds some sisterly support in Valerie (Keren Roberts), Daphne’s faithful caregiver. Successful, stylish, and stable in her marriage to a prosperous white businessman, the peacemaking Valerie appears to lead the picture-perfect life – but she too seems unhappy in keeping up the pretence. Add the ghostly presence of the siblings’ deceased half-sister Cloe (Jamila Shani Joseph), who apparates to wordlessly lure the ailing Daphne to the hereafter, and years of bottled up emotions erupt explosively to the surface.
Tamara Brown is a prime choice to direct this poignant narrative of strong, resilient female characters (and its evenly fierce performing ensemble), bringing nuance and specificity to the particular challenges of women of colour while also conveying the universality of intergenerational conflict. Trauma from loss is not exclusive to any community. “Mothers will be mothers”, regardless of ethnicity, race, creed, or sexual orientation.
There is thus substance in the script – but it appears more suited to domestic TV drama at times in its appeal to heightened emotions of the audience; the failed relationships, strained familial situations, and physical hardships here, however, don’t quite draw the tears. The ghostly figure lurking in white is no new device. Fortunately, though, it’s not all pathos-filled as the heavy plot finds its balance with humour. The most enjoyable moments are those of casual levity (the hat sequence is a delight) and realism in conversation.
How Black Mothers Say I Love You deals with departures, certainly: immigration, separation, resignation, divorce, death. Its ultimate message, however, is one of hope and reconciliation. It’s furthermore about the lessons we don’t understand until we’ve grown – compromise, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love for our children. (As an immigrant myself in Canada, I leave the theatre with renewed gratitude for my parents’ own difficult endeavour in laying the groundwork for my sisters and I. I feel perpetually indebted.) Before us is a first-rate production of a gripping piece on the strength of the human spirit.
Black Theatre Workshop presents
“How Black Mothers Say I Love You”
Performances: February 27th to March 16th, 2019
Running Time: 2 hours (including one 15 minute intermission)
Venue: Centaur Theatre, 453 St Francois Xavier, Montreal, H2Y 2T1
Admission: $27 (General)
Box Office: 514.288.3161 | www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca