NOVEMBER 2023 | Volume 233


Production image

Main Photo HBMSILY by Zuleyma Prado.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You
by Trey Anthony
the frank theatre company
The Cultch Historic Theatre
Nov. 2-12
From $29 or 604-251-1363

How Black Mothers Say I Love You delves into the tender, often humorous, and heart-wrenching dynamics of an immigrant, single-parent Jamaican household in New York City. Unfurling from the heart of intimate, soul-baring conversations at the kitchen table or in the living room, ordinary exchanges transform into heated arguments that lead to shattering revelations. Long-buried emotions and resentments claw their way to the surface, as lives once separated converge in a realistic whirlwind of grief, acceptance, and shared reckonings.

Claudette (Alisha Davidson), the estranged daughter of Daphne (Celeste Insell), comes home after three silent years in Montreal, compelled by the news of Daphne's rapidly advancing terminal cancer. While grappling with the impending loss, Daphne's younger sister, Valerie (Kerën Burkett), undertakes the role of caregiver, despite Daphne's defiance of medical advice and her seemingly serene acceptance of the approaching end. The prodigal daughter’s homecoming triggers reproaches from the other two women, who bemoan how she’s “always running off somewhere.” Peeling back the layers of her self-imposed isolation, Claudette digs into some painful family historywhile airing some grievances of her own. Foremost among them is her mother's painful rejection of her queer identity.

Initially reluctant to engage with her daughter's questions and emotions, Daphne’s character encapsulates a complex and authentically human mixture of selfless maternal love and constraining criticism. Insell embodies Daphne's more endearing, unintentionally humorous, and vivacious qualities with ease. In the more mundane but emotionally resonant moments—like when she persuades the tomboyish Claudette to attend church in a dress and hat—Insell shifts her disarming charm and warmth to stern judgment with a grounded believability.

In the bigger moments, Davidson stands out. She portrays Claudette with a clawing vulnerability, especially when her yearning for validation and acceptance goes unmet.

Valerie navigates her own marital challenges while shouldering the role of family mediator, and Burkett radiates anxiety as sister and mother inevitably get entangled in another argument. Burkett also injects the role with a well-balanced dash of comedic flair; conversations between the two sisters offer some of the play's funniest moments.

When aired grievances begin to feel repetitive, and the intensity dwindles somewhat, Canadian playwright Trey Anthony introduces a compelling device. Beyond Daphne's illness, another looming presence haunts this family: Daphne's profound grief for her late daughter, Cloe, who tragically passed away in her youth. Cloe's ghost (Marlee Griffiths) hovers at the edges, physically manifesting with a spectral glow of purple and golden light whenever tensions in the house reach a crescendo. Though she never utters a word, her voice fills the rooms of the family’s home with church hymns. This spectral interruption adds to the play's sonic and tonal landscape, seeping into the fabric of the family's daily disputes and moments of joy with a haunting spiritual tenderness.The light, childlike quality of Griffiths’ vocals evokes the profound interplay between pain and love in every one of the women’s interactions, casting the play's overall tone into something more buoyant and wistful.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You may initially seem like a tale of modest proportions, featuring a small yet mighty cast to match. However, within its finely crafted intimacy, frank theatre company’s production, directed by Fay Nass, delves deep. Complex family dynamics rarely lead to easy resolutions, and for immigrant families the physical distances traveled together often fail to bridge the emotional gaps; in fact, they often deepen divides. How Black Mothers Say I Love You excels at unearthing some of their reconcilable spaces within the context of growing up and growing old in an immigrant household. It also offers a welcome dose of optimism. As a first-generation immigrant from a single-parent household, I found a strong sense of grounding and relatability throughout the story, and I'm sure that many others will too.

Reviewed by Angie Rico







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