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How Black Mothers Say I love You.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
How Black Mothers Say I Love You
Written by
Trey Anthony
Directed by
Trey Anthony
Actors
Ordena Thompson and Robinne Fanfair
Venue
Factory Theatre
City
Toronto
Runs Until
Sunday, May 15, 2016

It's tough enough for a playwright to follow up a hit; I can only imagine what it is like for Trey Anthony trying to follow up a phenomenon.

Da Kink in My Hair, Anthony's first play, was born at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001, remounted at Theatre Passe Muraille and the Princess of Wales, then reincarnated as a sitcom. It's toured and travelled far and wide and still has life – with a new production starring Anthony set to play at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Theatre Calgary next season.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You is Anthony's first solo-authored play to premiere since Da Kink and, knowing the virtue of starting small, she's only staging it for a week and a half at Factory Theatre for the moment. Will it make a bigger splash down the line?

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Da Kink in My Hair had its own neat, untutored structure: Within a comedy set at a Toronto salon, a series of black female characters broke out into dramatic monologues about their struggles with racism, shadism and sexual abuse while getting their hair done. When it toured to Britain, the Guardian called it "like a black Vagina Monologues, but with more laughs."

How Black Mothers Say I Love You has a much more conventional shape: It's a kitchen-sink family drama. Even though the fourth wall has ostensibly descended, however, Anthony's Jamaican-Canadian women still feel the need to testify about their experiences in ways that strain the boundaries of naturalistic dialogue.

Claudette (Robinne Fanfair) has returned home to Toronto from Montreal having heard that her mother Daphne (Ordena Thompson) is dying of cancer. The two have been estranged for a number of years: Claudette has never really come to terms with the way her mother left her and her younger sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) behind in Jamaica for six years when they were children, while church-going Daphne is unable or unwilling to accept that Claudette is gay.

Add in Valerie's own struggles with her (white) husband's infidelity with a (white) younger woman – and the memory or ghost of their late half-sister Cloe (Jewelle Blackman) – and there are plenty of kinks to iron out over the course of the play. Indeed, too many for some not to end up getting short shrift.

What Anthony's play explores most compellingly is the wound left behind when parents – especially mothers – leave their young children to come to Canada to work for an extended period of time. The specific context here is the West Indian Domestic Scheme that led to a wave of women from Jamaica and Barbados moving here starting in 1955, often followed by their families after racist restrictions on immigration were lifted in the 1960s.

Daphne, of course, believes she was laying the groundwork for a better life for her kids. But Claudette has developed a fear of abandonment – and recently left a woman she loves due to it.

Their intergenerational conflict is a variation on the theme at the centre of major works of Canadian drama from David French to Ins Choi. We have an older generation who made major sacrifices to come to this country for their offspring's sake – and a younger generation torn between their parents' dreams and ideals and their own.

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That cultural gap is clear from the iconography up on the walls of Claudette's old room (Prince posters, Miki Howard albums, Mad Magazine cartoons) versus that up in Daphne's kitchen (Barack Obama, a Jamaican flag, Jesus). The set and costumes are by Rachel Forbes, who has also dug up an impressive array of church hats for Daphne.

Anthony has created a rich, vivid and very funny character in Daphne – who is intolerant, stubborn and yet deeply loveable. Ordena Thompson is charming in the part, taking her well beyond the strong, straight-talking mother figure and navigating a tricky dramatic shift late in the second act.

As is often the case in first-to-second generation-gap plays, the children are less colourful characters. In the case of Claudette, it doesn't help that Fanfair is a film and television actress with little stage experience; she forces and overprojects most of the time.

Anthony, seeking to control her own destiny as an artist, wears almost as many hats as Daphne here – she's the producer, director and writer. I think she needs to relinquish the director's chair going forward, to bring an outside eye in to point out where her play becomes repetitive or inconsistent.

In particular, I wonder about the ending – I found it too easy and tacked on and would have preferred for the show to end one scene earlier. Another hat Anthony wears in her life is motivational speaker, but I'm not sure that one doesn't clash with that of a truly honest dramatist.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You runs until May 15 (factorytheatre.ca).

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