Six years in the making, writer/producer/motivational speaker Trey Anthony had a dream to write and produce a play about black mothers, particularly black mothers who left their children behind as they searched for a better life, an experience that is painfully familiar to her. Anthony joined forces with producer Carys Lewis to form Girls In Bow Ties, a company dedicated to telling “the untold stories of unconventional women,” with a “focus on work that gives voice to women of colour through theatre and film productions, arts-focused youth outreach programs, as well as mentoring and training to young, female artists of colour.”
In May 2016, the dream became reality, as Girls With Bow Ties mounted Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You, directed by Anthony and opening last night in the Factory Theatre Mainspace to a sold-out house.
Estranged from her family and living in Montreal for the past three years, Claudette (Robinne Fanfair) returns home to Toronto upon receiving news from her younger sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) that their mother Daphne (Ordena Thompson) is coming to the end of her battle with cancer. Claudette’s arrival is unexpected for Daphne and a relief to Valerie, who has been juggling work, a husband and a sick mother. There is immediate tension in the household, and not only due to Claudette’s sexuality, which Daphne disapproves of and Valerie doesn’t get. Claudette gives voice to her feelings of betrayal and abandonment when their mother left them with their grandmother in Jamaica for six years as she set up a new life in Canada – a life that came to include a new man and a third daughter, Chloe (Jewelle Blackman). And when Claudette and Valerie finally joined their mother in Toronto, they found resentment and disdain from their new father, and a mother preoccupied with their frail, sickly new sister.
It’s a bittersweet family reunion, and the two older sisters have some major catching up to do, with Claudette still smarting from her recent breakup with her girlfriend and Valerie’s marriage in serious trouble. Daphne is not one for talking about feelings or dwelling in the past; she did what she had to do and what she thought was best to get herself and her daughters out of dire circumstances and into a better life. Taking comfort in the Bible, her prayer group and church services, she waits for death and lives in the hope of being reunited with Chloe, who drifts about Daphne’s home, silent but for the moving, evocative violin music she plays.
Combining dance (in the prologue, choreographed by Irma Villafuerte) and original music (written/produced by Gavin Bradley) with comedy and family drama, How Black Mothers Say I Love You is a highly entertaining and poignant piece of storytelling, featuring stand-out performances from the cast. Thompson gives a compelling and hilarious performance as the no-nonsense, sharply funny Daphne, who is a force to be reckoned with, even as she lives with terminal cancer. A solid Christian woman who abides no foolishness, she lives in the here and now, and any hardships she faces are not dwelled upon and are spoken of matter-of-factly, if at all. Common sense, as evidenced by sayings and sage words from back home, rule in her house. Do your best and let God do the rest. Daphne’s approach to life proves to be the opposite of her daughter Claudette’s – and Fanfair gives a lovely, multi-layered performance of a daughter who had to leave home to live a life of her choosing, returning to support her family, and longing to find closure and connection with her mother before it’s too late. Strong and brave, out and proud, yet so vulnerable and struggling with commitment issues, she’s torn between nursing old wounds and getting on with her life as she strives to advocate for herself, her life and her sister – demanding acknowledgment of their being left, neglected and unwanted, only to be forgotten in the face of the new favourite Chloe when their mother brought them to Canada.
Edwards-Crewe does a great job with the many facets of Valerie, who is in the unenviable position of family peacemaker and buffer. Caught in the middle of the ongoing battles between her mother and sister, who she loves, she is desperately struggling to stay positive and keep a brave face as she navigates her own critical situation at home. Longing for a baby even as her marriage is crumbling around her, she can’t help but wonder if marrying a white man (also her boss) was a mistake and hates herself for it. She is glad her sister is there to help with their dying mother, but why can’t everyone just get along? And the multi-talented Blackman brings a sense of light and fragility to the ethereal Chloe, whose presence and music brings comfort to Daphne – memories of what was and hope for what may be; and her command of the violin and this music has a hauntingly beautiful and heart-wrenching effect.
Last night’s opening played to an enthusiastic, packed house full of friends, family, colleagues and fans – and featured a pre-show introduction and welcome from Anthony, who also gave a post-show introduction to the production and creative team, as well as her mother and sister, who received a marriage proposal onstage! Trey Anthony can drop the mic on this one – opening night festivities don’t get any better than that.
It’s particularly fitting and gratifying to be posting this on Mother’s Day. We’re reminded that, even though we may not always approve of or understand their choices (nor they ours), our mothers strive to do the best they can under the circumstances in order to give us our best chance. And although they may not always – if ever – put it into words, mothers show their love through their sacrifices, their actions and even their nagging. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.
Mothers and daughters, and love, separation and forgiveness in the funny, thoughtful and moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You.
How Black Mothers Say I Love You continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 15; the run is nearly sold out, so get your tix in advance.
You can also keep up with How Black Mothers Say I Love You on Facebook.