Review: Playwright Trey Anthony takes too long to say I Love You in latest at GCTC

Malube, Bénédicte Bélizaire, Samantha Walkes, Lucinda Davis in a scene from How Black Mothers Say I Love You. Photo: Andrew Alexander

“I love you” doesn’t slip easily from Daphne’s tongue. But they are words that her grown daughter Claudette hungers to hear from her mother.

That disconnect — which spirals outward to include Claudette’s sister Valerie, their dead sibling Cloe and multiple generations of black women with roots in Jamaica — is at the heart of Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.

Opening on International Women’s Day at GCTC, Anthony’s play is about many things: mothers and daughters, walled-off emotions, self-sacrifice, how we compromise to survive, the resilience of hope and love and family.

Whether Anthony, and by extension this production, succeed in bringing all this fully to life is another matter.

In the play, prickly Claudette (Malube) has returned to her mother’s home in Toronto after several years’ absence living in Montreal. Daphne (Lucinda Davis), proud and self-sufficient, is terminally ill although good at denying it and getting on with life, including church attendance and its concomitant gossip.

Also on hand is Valerie (Samantha Walkes). Well-groomed but unhappily married – “He’s what I know,” she says of her white, real estate developer husband – she’s the faithful daughter, looking in regularly on her mother.

Claudette and Daphne soon clash in a fashion that is clearly a long-standing one. It stems from Claudette’s simmering resentment that Daphne, like other women of her generation, had left her two daughters with their grandmother in Jamaica when they were children so Daphne could come to Canada for decent-paying work that would give her children a better life.

Daphne remarried in Canada, and a third child, Cloe, was born here, apparently her mother’s favourite. This youngest sibling died, but her simpering ghost (Bénédicte Bélizaire) appears occasionally, and distractingly, during the course of the play, visible only to Daphne.

While there are moments of unity and joy – Daphne, Claudette and Valerie laughing around the table or dancing their way to Daphne’s bedroom – Anthony’s storyline is a largely fraught one.

Daphne, in physical and emotional pain, buries her face in a pillow rather than let her daughters hear her cry.

Claudette, still raw from the end of a relationship, is a walking trigger finger, ready to fire at the slightest provocation and trying desperately to get her mother to admit she was wrong in leaving her children behind in Jamaica.

Valerie, who’s drawn in less detail than her mother or sister, has compromised herself for a stable life and bears her own share of self-hatred, which always seems so surprising in an attractive person.

Much of the family dynamic here is about leaving.

Daphne has separated herself from her own emotions, as she had to do when she left her children behind in Jamaica. As a result, she can’t – or won’t – connect with her own or her children’s feelings. “What do you girls want from me? Tell me!” she says desperately at one point.

Claudette has a history of bailing before someone else bails on her, while Valerie clings to a discontented existence from fear of leaving it for something worse.

Cloe, of course, has done the ultimate departure.

The performances here are solid, especially Malube as the spiky, deeply wounded Claudette. Kimberley Rampersad’s direction is fluid. Set designer Roger Schultz’s expansive, Jamaica-themed home is functional and credible.

But Anthony’s script doesn’t scintillate.

Lacking the snap, snarl and warmth of her earlier ‘da Kink in my Hair, which played the National Arts Centre in 2016, How Black Mothers Say I Love You too easily slides into the territory of televised kitchen sink drama (‘da Kink actually was turned into a television series).

That slide includes hackneyed lines like Valerie’s “When you forgive, it allows you to truly live” and scenes, including the ending, that feel contrived.

Maybe there’s just too much of Trey Anthony in her own play. Both she and her own mother experienced what Claudette and Valerie have: the absence of a mother who had gone abroad to work in menial jobs for the sake of the children.

The sting seems never to abate completely. In tangling with her own and her family’s ghosts, Anthony has created an unnecessarily long play (almost two hours) in which the playwright’s hand is overly evident. There’s love here, but it’s just too hard to find.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You is a GCTC production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until March 25. Tickets:

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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.