Great Canadian Theatre Company: Immigration and the damage done in How Black Mothers Say I Love You

Bénédicte Bélizaire in a scene from How Black Mothers Say I Love You at the GCTC. Photo: Andrew Alexander

Not long ago, Canadian playwright Trey Anthony was chatting with her Uber driver, an immigrant from Poland, when her play How Black Mothers Say I Love You came up in the conversation.

The show, which previews at the Great Canadian Theatre Company on March 6, is about the struggles of a Toronto woman named Daphne and her adult daughters to reconcile the emotional damage from their collective early history, when Daphne left her children in Jamaica so she could work in Canada.

When Anthony outlined her play’s trajectory for that Uber driver, he responded with this own story. Like Daphne, he had temporarily left his family, including a young son, so he could forge a new life for them all in Canada. And, as with Daphne’s family, there was fallout.

“Me and my son have never been able to connect,” he told Anthony, and his son still bears resentment toward him.

That deeply strained relationship experienced by some immigrants is one Anthony knows personally.

As a youngster, Anthony – who you may know as the writer of ’da Kink in My Hair, the hit play that became a TV show — lived with her sister and grandmother in London, England for four years while her mother worked at menial jobs in Rexdale, Ontario. Anthony knew her mother, who had been born in Jamaica, was trying to establish a life for her family here, but, says the playwright, “(As a child), all you know is you want your mother.”

“I was a bit confused,” she says, “especially for important moments in my life like my mom not being there when I went shopping for my first bra … I grew up watching The Cosby Show and I wanted Clair Huxtable (the accomplished, feminist matriarch in the ‘80s-era sit com) as a mom. When you see limited portrayals of black motherhood, you only have Clair Huxtable to compare to your own mother – ‘Well, she ain’t Clair, so she must be doing a lousy job.’”

Anthony’s mother had herself been left behind when her own mother left her family in Jamaica to seek work in England. The experience is a bit of a “family legacy,” says the playwright, and underlies How Black Mothers Say I Love You.

It’s also a bit of a Canadian legacy. Starting in the mid-1950s, something called the West Indian Domestic Scheme allowed women from Jamaica and Barbados to enter the country to work as domestics for at least one year.

Many did so with the intent of paving the way to a better life for the families they’d left back home. But, cut off from everything and everybody they’d known and with the possibility of being sent home if they proved unacceptable, the women often found life in Canada hard.

“As I interviewed these women (for the play), a lot spoke about the solitude and the loneliness and the fear they would be sent back,” says Anthony. Community, family, language: they’d sacrificed it all.

Referencing recent news stories of Filipino women who have been hired as nannies in Canada only to find themselves in horrendous working situations, Anthony says those Caribbean women of decades ago also endured misery. “There was no time off, there was sexual abuse. It was a dangerous time for these women because they were at the mercy of their employers.”

To deal with that kind of situation – which was hardly unique to Canada — and to get through the pain of leaving their children behind, many women simply shut down emotionally, says Anthony. And when those women did eventually  try to reconnect with their children, many found themselves too emotionally stunted to do so, says the playwright.

“How my family expressed love was by making sure you had a roof over your head, that you got an education, that you had clean clothing. And giving you opportunities they never had … that was the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate ‘I love you.’”

Today, says Anthony, “we are mothering in a gentler and kinder way, and a more verbal way.” But the kind of fraught relationship that Daphne and her daughters endure in the play continues to dog many, including Anthony herself.

While she now recognizes how tough it was for her mother, who was in her early 20s at the time, to leave her children, “There are days when I’m much more forgiving of my mother than others … I grew up with this hole in my heart, and even now as an adult it sometimes re-opens. Little things will trigger me. You never quite get over being a child who was left behind.”

How Black Mothers Say I Love You is at GCTC March 6-25 (Previews: March 6 and 7. Opening night, March 8). Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196,

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.