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How Black Mothers Say I Love You: slowly

by | Nov 3, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

Kerën Burkett and Alisha Davidson deliver solid performances. (Photo: Kimberly Ho)

Playwright Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You is about the experiences of three Black women — four if you count the ghost. More specifically, it’s about immigration. I’m a second-generation-Canadian white guy so, in writing this review, I’m speaking from an outside perspective. Although this show mostly didn’t work for me, I have no doubt it will be more meaningful to others.

In Anthony’s story, the mom, Daphne, is dying of cancer. She has quit chemo because it made her feel so rotten and, as her daughter Claudette suggests, Daphne may be eager to join another daughter Cloe, who died of a respiratory illness at a young age.

Cloe is the ghost that haunts the family. She’s also the last-born and only Canadian-born of Daphne’s three girls. When Daphne emigrated to Canada from Jamaica, she left her other two kids behind with their grandma. Claudette was seven and Valerie five. Daphne didn’t send for them for six years, a perceived abandonment from which the adult Claudette has not recovered.

Claudette (aka Claude) is lesbian, which is another source of friction with her mom. Claude hasn’t been home in three years.

On opening night, two huge problems announced themselves in the first scene. As written, Daphne is obviously a Character: a wheedling, commanding, outrageously colourful church lady who loves the biggest hats. Playing her, Celeste Insell barely begins to fill in that outline. Daphne has a lot to say and it should spill out of her, but Insell’s delivery is slow and hesitant. Insell finds some emotional depth later in Act 2 but, for the most part, the dynamics of this frank theatre production are off-kilter.

That first scene is also badly directed. As Daphne stands at the kitchen table and pretends to prepare dinner, director Fay Nass has given Claude (Alisha Davidson) sweet nothing to do so she just stands there and listens to Daphne’s monologue. It’s painfully static.

Nass has also failed to find a coherent sense of style for this production. The script has a ghost, there are a couple of extended scenes about big Sunday hats, and, at one point, grown-up Valerie delivers a comically extreme monologue about the awfulness of her marriage. But none of that fits in this production because, although spooky music and lighting accompany Cloe, Nass has established a baseline of mundane realism.

Underlying all of this are the problems in Anthony’s script: for literal hours, Claude just repeats her accusations of abandonment and Daphne hammers away at Claude to give up the “nonsense” of lesbianism. In Act 2, there’s a kind of deus ex machina, a crisis dropped in from an offstage storyline that brings these issues to a head, and the narrative finally has somewhere to go. The resolution is so speedy that it feels unearned, but at least something happens and, when it does, it’s moving.

I also want to say that, throughout the evening, Davidson as Claudette and Kerën Burkett as Valerie do lovely work. Both of them are focused and emotionally present. The scenes between them are warm, nuanced, and playful.

HOW BLACK MOTHERS SAY I LOVE YOU By Trey Anthony. Directed by Fay Nass. Produced by the frank theatre company and presented by The Cultch. On Thursday, November 2. Playing The Cultch’s Historic Theatre until November 12. Tickets and information

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