The queer themes of out playwright Trey Anthony’s “How Black Mothers Say I Love You”

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You might think a play about mother-daughter abandonment issues is the last place anyone would want to be on Mother’s Day weekend, but not so. Out writer/director Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You opened to a packed room in Toronto on Saturday night and closed with a standing ovation. It was much deserved.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You was inspired by Trey’s own family history, although several running themes are not unique to her experience. The play highlights the plight of domestic workers who starting in the mid-’50s left countries like Jamaica and Barbados to work in Canada and the United States. Many of these women left children behind. But changes in government policies meant many were able to eventually reunite in North America. By then, however, years had passed and not only were these kids being uprooted from their homes and introduced to a new country, but they had to reacquaint themselves with their mothers and unpack all the emotions that went with that.

Daphne, Valerie, Claudette

This story is personal for Trey, who in her director’s note wrote, “I come from a legacy of black mothers who have left their children.” That legacy includes two grandmothers who left their children behind in search of a better life and her own mother, Claudette, leaving her and her siblings behind in England to go to Canada. None of these women ever got over these events. In fact, Trey’s maternal grandmother was the inspiration for the play. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she shared that one of her biggest regrets was leaving behind her children.

While this history alone was surely more than enough material to work with, Trey felt compelled to come at the story from a queer angle as well.

“For me, it was really important to have every single one of my identities as a black queer female presented in a story that I could relate to,” Trey said.

This was embodied in her protagonist, Claudette (Robinne Fanfair). Yes, she named her lesbian main character after her mother. Trey said she did so to honor her mom and to show the ways in which they are similar and connected.

Claudette_Actor Robinne Fanfair

In How Black Mothers Say I Love You, Claudette returns home after three years away and the failure of a long-term relationship. Her mother, Daphne (Ordena Thompson), has been diagnosed with cancer and her sister, Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe), is trying to save her marriage. Despite this, Claudette can’t seem to let go of her abandonment issues. You see, Daphne had left her and Valerie in Jamaica for six years when Claudette was just seven to move to Canada.

It was while in Canada that Daphne got married and had another daughter, Cloe (Jewelle Blackman). A sickly child, Cloe died young (although you’ll see her appear as a ghost with some amazing violin solos). The special attention paid to Cloe by their mother is yet another reason why Claudette’s relationship with Daphne is strained. Another big one? Daphne’s lack of acceptance for her daughter’s sexuality.

Claudette_Daphne

Daphne’s a religious woman, the kind that goes to church every day and puts her health in God’s hands. While she at times seems to have come to terms with Claudette’s sexuality, when pushed it’s clear she thinks her daughter’s “lifestyle” is a personal attack and that she’d much rather see her paired off with a man.

For her part, Valerie seems fine with her big sister being queer, although she does drop a line about it not being an issue as long as she doesn’t rub it in anyone’s face. We’ve all heard that one before.

Not that there’s anything, or anyone, to rub our faces in. Nor Jenna nor any of Claudette’s exes appear in the play. Trey explained that while Jenna was there in the first draft, she soon realized she wanted to concentrate on the dynamic between a mother and her daughters. “It really was about just keeping it within these four women and their lives.”

That said, Jenna is still a constant presence. In one scene, Claudette has a panic attack in front of her sister because she’s starting to forget little details about Jenna. It’s clear she loved her, so why did she end things? As the play goes on, it becomes obvious that Claudette leaves people before they can leave her.

Daphne, Claudette_Valerie

Valerie calls her out on it during one of the play’s most emotional scenes. The two really do have a unique relationship. Having had that same kind of connection with her own siblings, Trey insisted on that being a crucial part of the play.

“We definitely do not see that level of intimacy and gentleness with black women,” Trey said. “I was really tired of seeing us being portrayed on stage as argumentative, strong, pulling out each other’s weaves, that kind of stuff.”

Emotionally heavy at times, it has to be noted that How Black Mothers Say I Love You is also hilarious. It’s clear from the beginning that these women love and like each other and that they will find common ground because of this.

Remarkably, this is Trey’s first attempt at directing. If audience reaction is anything to go by, she’s done a great job. It’s no surprise then that they play’s run in Toronto is almost completely sold out. Trey is already looking into runs in Ottawa, Montreal, New York City, Atlanta and England. Should that pan out, the play will be adapted to fit an American or English context. On top of that, there’s been some talk about turning the play into a multi-episode series or a TV show.

And if you’re wondering, yes, Trey does plan to explore black queer themes again. “I really do feel a calling to do that kind of work continuously,” she said.

“I really do feel a calling to do that kind of work continuously,” she said.

TreyAnthony _8

How Black Mothers Say I Love You is playing at Factory Theater in Toronto through May 15.

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