Mothers & daughters, & love, separation & forgiveness in funny, thoughtful, moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You

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Ordena Thompson, Allison Edwards-Crewe & Robinne Fanfair in How Black Mothers Say I Love You – photos by Idil Jeilani

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.

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Ordena Thompson & Jewelle Blackman

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. Check out the trailer and also check out the longer version, which includes a look behind the scenes:

 

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Raw, real, funny & socially astute – Soup Can Theatre/safeword/Aim for the Tangent Theatre Co-pro Circle Jerk

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Playwright/director Brandon Crone (Maypole Rose – safeword)

Was back out to the Spadina/Queen West neighourhood last night to see the Soup Can Theatre, safeword and Aim for the Tangent Theatre co-production Circle Jerk at lemonTree studio (196 Spadina Ave., just north of Queen St. West).

Featuring four short, new plays, the production provided some interesting instructions to playwrights: they were to use selected lines of dialogue – submitted by the public (almost 300 submissions) – as the opening and closing lines of their plays (with the closing line of one play also serving as the opening line of the next play). The four selected lines were:

“Subtlety is not your specialty.”
“What’s Bulgarian for slut?”
“I think it’s time we talked about your filthy rituals.”
“I fucking hate potatoes.”

Throw in the tagline: Sex. Death. Bananas. and, along with the cyclical structure – a round robin of short plays that literally play off of each other, one tagging another – and there’s the title of the production.

Dust Peddling: Part II (Soup Can Theatre), by Scott Dermody and directed by Joanne Williams. Have you ever had an orgasm? A bed. A man. A woman. Erotic and poetic, physical theatre meets verse and prose in this beautifully edgy and lyrical hybrid piece, where the words are dialogue, foreplay and more. Lovely, candid work from actors Dermody and Lisa Hamalainen.

Sex and This (Aim for the Tangent Theatre), by Wesley J. Colford and directed by Jakob Ehman. What the actual fuck?! Two energetic young urban women getting ready for a themed costume party at a friend’s house are interrupted by some dire news. Facebook and text-reliant Millennials deal with communicating loss. Darkly funny, poignant and truthful performances from Tiffany Deobald and Carys Lewis.

Maypole Rose (safeword), written and directed by Brandon Crone. Two fags, a potent fatty and a bag of junk food. A young married, health-conscious gay couple indulge in stoned monkey lovin’ and junk food consumption. A frank fly-on-the-wall look at a relationship – workaday inanity, bedroom rituals, gender roles, secrets and all. Sexy, raw, tender and funny, with fabulous and honest performances from Alexander Plouffe and G. Kyle Shields.

The Session (Soup Can Theatre), written and directed by Justin Haigh. When under extreme pressure, everyone has his/her breaking point. A workplace counselling session goes to some very dark places as the plant therapist (Matt Pilipiak) and nuclear safety expert (Allan Michael Brunet) work through their introductory meeting. Brunet and Pilipiak do a remarkable job with the back and forth of power/control and vulnerability/fragility, as well as the dramatic tension and dark humour of the piece.

Circle Jerk also features live music inspired by the four lines of dialogue: Subtlety is not Your Specialty by Marla Kishimoto, What’s Bulgarian for Slut by Soup Can Theatre’s Music Director, Pratik Gandhi, I Think it’s Time We Talked About Your Filthy Rituals by Peter Cavell, and I Fucking Hate Potatoes by Patricia Stevens. Directed by Gandhi, the five-piece mini-orchestra includes an upright bass, cello, clarinet, flute and keyboard. The pool of musicians includes Katie Saunoris, Subrina Sookram, Ainsley Lawson, Rachel Gauntlett, Cory Latkovich, Matteo Ferrero-Wong, Brandon Sked and Susan Kim. Lighting on intense, whimsical and cultural flavour – from a piece featuring a hilariously bad (on purpose), yet passionate, clarinet solo to a jolly Irish-inspired tune that turns into a meltdown – the music mirrored and enhanced the theatrical content perfectly.

Sometimes a banana isn’t just a banana. Circle Jerk is a raw, real, darkly funny and socially astute set of short new plays, combining a trio of fine local indie theatre companies with crowd-sourced creativity and multidisciplinary talent. So get yourself out to lemonTree studio and go see this.

Circle Jerk continues its run at lemonTree studio tonight (Nov 15) and tomorrow (Nov 16), and this coming week from Nov 21 – 23; all performances at 8 p.m.

Falling – first rehearsals

As some of you know, I auditioned for Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival 2013 and, after being called back to read for two plays, was cast in the Week One reading of Jamie Johnson’s play Falling, directed by Ed Rosing.

I don’t want to give too much away – since I dislike spoilers and want you to come see for yourselves – but I can tell you that Falling is a mother/daughter drama, beautifully written, and presented through personal storytelling and fairy tale. The daughter (Constance) is presented at four different ages, played by four different actors, and each contributes pieces of memory – vital moments from her life at that age – in a desperate effort to reconnect with her estranged mother Lou. I play the oldest version of Constance, at 48 years old.

Last night, we just finished the second of our first two rehearsals – the first on Friday night was a series of one-one-on meetings with Ed and assistant director/stage manager Jake Simpkins to discuss character specifics, as well as the overall rhythm and tone of the play. The entire cast was out last night for the first read-through: Ruth Miller (Lou), me (Constance, at 48), Kristen Scott (Consti, at 30), Cora Matheson (Con, at 18) and Carys Lewis (Connie, at 12). We were joined by Jamie, as well as sound designer Rick Jones, who is putting together some lovely background music for the fairy tale portions of the reading. BTW: Jake schleps in from Windsor to work with us and, luckily, he drives – though we were a bit concerned about the driving conditions in last night’s weather.

It is both interesting and complex playing one version of the same character. The older the version of Constance, the more autobiographical knowledge she has – and we discussed how some of us would know things our younger selves wouldn’t, and how each older Constance had the opportunity to be reminded of forgotten details by a younger self. Personally, I’ve been fascinated by those little tricks of memory, and how we sometimes need to rely on journals or others to fill in forgotten details – positive or negative. How is the current version of us different from younger versions? Our similarities can be even more interesting. What about our younger self do we miss, want back? What changes do we embrace?

Another big topic that came up was things hidden and things revealed. Lou is hearing some familiar stories of her daughter’s life – but is unaware of the whole story. The same goes for Constance regarding her mother’s experience. And, in the case of Consti and Constance, mother and daughter are all but strangers. As our characters, we’re exploring: What do we know? How does what we’re hearing differ from what we thought we knew? What are we hearing for the first time?

In a combination reminiscent of the play Albertine in Five Times and the movie Terms of Endearment, Falling combines the complexity of multiple versions of the same character with the complications of the mother/daughter dynamic – with the backdrop of domestic violence in a rural setting.  Along with the languid fairy tale storytelling , the imagery is lovely, magical and haunting: the moon, the night, the apple tree. And, while Lou’s and Constance’s lives are far from happy ever after, it is Lou’s fairy tale storytelling that comforts and binds them together – and becomes a possible path to reunion and forgiveness.

Falling will be presented as a reading, with one performance only, on Saturday, March 9 at noon in the Alumnae Theatre Studio. New Ideas Festival readings are pay-what-you-can. For full program details and reservations, please visit the Alumnae Theatre website: http://www.alumnaetheatre.com/