If you’re looking for a family drama with an abundance of emotional depth and a production that runs like a well-oiled machine, look no further than How Black Mothers Say I Love You(HBMSILY), written by Trey Anthony, currently playing at the Irving Greenberg Centre until March 25th. Riding the success of previous play ‘da kink in my hair, Anthony delivers another solid piece that focuses on the incredibly tough choices many women of colour (especially migrant workers) must make to benefit their children. Under the capable direction of Kimberley Rampersad, this production is both visually and intellectually satisfying and one I would certainly recommend seeing before it leaves town.
HBMSILY revolves around matriarch Daphne (played by Lucinda Davis) and her three daughters Claudette, Valerie, and Cloe. Daphne’s choice to migrate from Jamaica to Canada while leaving her two young daughters with their grandmother, weighs heavily on eldest daughter Claudette who resents her mother for leaving them in the Caribbean for six years while she has seemingly found a new family in Canada with a new partner and the eventual birth of Cloe. Returning to her mother’s house in Scarborough at the behest of Valerie, who we learn has finally decided to divulge the seriousness of Daphne’s illness, Claudette’s frustration reaches a boiling point as both her mother and sister refuse to face their issues head on as a family unit. From a narrative perspective, this text has a lot to gravitate towards: it’s simultaneously a tale of family acceptance and one of reconciliation between characters who are both genuine in their intentions, yet fallible and deeply sensitive human beings.
Aesthetically speaking, this production does a good job of transforming the space into a place that feels lived in by the characters on stage. The set, designed by Roger Schultz, is a vibrant arrangement of flats that come together to form Daphne’s one-storey bungalow (and looks to be inspired by the suburbs of the GTA- my Nanny’s house in Burlington had the exact same stairwell, for example) along with all the trimmings that one might expect from an older woman’s abode from the nesting end tables to the dedicated (and decorated) side table for the landline. Beaded curtains adorn almost all the doorways and the clashes of green, pink, and yellow wall paint give the home a more tropical flair. Underscoring this multi-coloured stage is AL Connor’s fabulous sound design which is both highly effective at emphasizing the characters’ Caribbean heritage while also underlining their joy for life through dancing and singing; and, in certain instances, reflecting their inner turmoil (for example, when we hear the disjointed lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain” during Daphne’s initial moments with ghost Cloe). Helen Rainbird’s costume design helps to reaffirm the personality traits of the characters: Valerie, perhaps the most materialistic of her sisters, is dressed in heels and silk skirt business suits most of the time whereas her older sister Claudette prefers to wear cotton pajama shorts and hoodies indicating a more relaxed lifestyle.
Performance-wise, this production runs very smooth and the ensemble works well off of one another. Davis as Daphne gives a stellar performance that had people literally yelling “Yas Queen” in the audience as she dances her way on to the stage in the very first scene. She navigates the balance between Daphne’s strong and faith-driven matriarchal instincts and her seriously repressed emotions with great aplomb and the tension between Daphne and daughter Claudette (played by a fiery Malube) is one of the strongest elements to this show. In the same vein, Malube’s performance as the eldest daughter, who’s dealing with numerous internal demons is both biting and vulnerable as she struggles to find the compromise between accepting the choice her mother made to be a migrant worker and wanting her mother to accept her and her sexuality despite Daphne’s faith based orthodoxy.
I am a bit confused by Samantha Walkes’ accent as Valerie. It sounds very southern American and it was unclear to me if this was a directorial choice to represent Val’s stepford housewife mentality or, perhaps, if this is how the performer speaks naturally- this being my first introduction to Walkes’ work it’s hard to say. In any case, she does well with the material and it’s a bit unfortunate that Valerie’s story appears to be thrown to the wayside in favour of other plotlines (whatever happens with her and her husband or her fertility issues?).
Bénédicte Bélizair (playing the ephemeral Cloe), despite having zero lines of dialogue, has major stage presence as a representative of the spiritual realm. Though I felt her ghostly aura could have been used to have a greater effect on the characters on stage (it’s never really made clear who can see Cloe or why Cloe chooses to interact with the sisters or Daphne when she does). However, the movement piece midway through the performance set to the instrumentals behind Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beams” is stunning and really drives home the heaviness and grief surrounding the loss of a young person taken well before their time.
The use of “kitchen-sink” realism has historically been the domain of white male Western playwrights like Arthur Miller, John Osborne, and Arnold Wesker, who worked towards creating a “slice of life” on stage. Reaching the height of its popularity in the UK in the late 50s and early 60s, the genre is defined by the “angry young men” protagonists who were embittered with modern society and their place in it usually depicting the domestic life of working class Britons. Similarly, Lorraine Hansberry adopted this genre for her 1959 Broadway hit “A Raisin in the Sun” to depict the lives of black people in suburban Chicago. We can likewise draw parallels here to director Rampersad and her use of this style of realism in her interpretation of HBMSILY to highlight that skin tone and ‘relatability’ are not mutually exclusive things.
By using a traditionally Western genre that it familiar to most theatre-going audiences, the playwright chooses to put women of colour front and centre. And if we’re going to be glib about this (especially given the immense struggles and oppressions people of colour [and specifically Black women] have had and continue to go through on a daily basis) this shows us that they’re really not so different than you and I. And listen, I realize that that sounds dismissive and that this play isn’t just to serve white people’s realization that PoC are people just like us. But what I am trying to get at is this: during the Prologue series Rampersad was asked if she felt that the title of the show was at all divisive for audiences because the title contains the words “Black Mothers”, and though you could see the director mentally check herself she aptly posits in no uncertain terms that that sounded like a personal problem on behalf of the individual viewer and not necessarily her responsibility as a director to worry about. Especially since people of colour have had to imagine themselves as a part of the story through white protagonists for literal centuries. Indeed, when you watch the play you understand exactly what she’s talking about: HBMSILY is certainly not the most provocative play nor does it really present anything ‘new’ thematically, however, what is more powerful is the presence of characters on stage who are women of colour in a play that allows them to function as mothers and daughters and lovers and fully realized well constructed characters and are not just representative of the “ethnic” (or worse).
It’s easy to see why Artistic Director Eric Coates would program a production like HBMSILY here at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. It’s a piece that presents us with characters that, historically, have not had as much time in the limelight as their anglo-saxon counterparts and does so in a very recognizable manner. Where the argument can be made that, statistically speaking, regular theatre goers are white middle class individuals, Trey Anthony has written a play that neither alienates nor panders to those audiences and gives women of colour the opportunity to steer and interpret a piece that was not only written for them, but also by an individual that shares their heritage. Not to mention the simple fact that this play allows PoC to see themselves and their issues represented on stage. HBMSILY is definitely the ‘feel-good’ production of the season and one that carries a lot of heart behind it- check it out before it’s too late!
How Black Mothers Say I Love You
March 6th-25th, 2018
Written by Trey Anthony
Directed by Kimberley Rampersad
Cast: Bénédicte Bélizaire as Cloe
Lucinda Davis as Daphne
Malube as Claudette
Samantha Walkes as Valerie
AL Connors: Sound Designer
Chantal Hayman: Stage Manager
Jess Preece: Assistant Stage Manager
Helen Rainbird: Costume Designer
Kimberley Rampersad: Director
Roger Schultz: Set, Props, and Lighting Designer