Claudette moves back in with her sister Valerie and mother Daphne when she learns that Daphne has terminal cancer. Claudette has never forgiven Daphne for moving to Canada and leaving her and Valerie with their grandmother for six years, nor for always seeming to care more for their younger half-sister Cloe, who died in childhood. In turn, Daphne has never come to terms with Claudette’s a tomboy and a lesbian, and constantly tries to get her to act more feminine. Valerie has been taking care of Daphne for years, and ends up in the unenviable role of peacekeeper as the three women are back in the same house for the first time in years.
I’ve heard great things about Trey Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You, and while I still would love to see it performed on stage, I can attest that the book version is incredibly strong. Anthony’s dialogue is sharp, and she’s great at switching between humour and tears within a single scene. Living together can often be a catalyst for long-buried issues and resentments to bubble to the surface, and Black Mothers does this beautifully. Anthony gives us beautifully brief moments of tenderness nestled between rapidly escalating confrontations, and as a result, there’s a tension within each quiet moment that reminds us how fragile peace can be. Conversely, the balance Anthony maintains between these types of scenes reminds us as well that there is a thread of love underscoring even the most emotionally fraught shouting matches.
Above all, the dialogue feels heartbreakingly real. Anthony does a great job with the relationship between the sisters and their mother. The way Claudette and Valerie tease each other, confront each other, and then defend each other all portray an incredibly fierce sisterly bond. I can just imagine them as children clutching to each other as they waited for their mother to bring them over to Canada, or perhaps as they prepare themselves for the possibility that she never would. And the way Daphne interacts with them is wonderfully familiar in the way only mothers can be, and yet there’s the sense of distance as well, that reminds us of how unfathomable adult daughters can be to their mothers.
I also really love this scene where Valerie tells Claudette that her husband, a wealthy white man, is having an affair with a white woman:
But when I found out about the affair I was right back in grade six. Hating this nose, hating this skin, hating this hair. Thinking I bet all along all he wanted was a white woman and maybe I just wasn’t enough?
And we’re in counselling. And we’re trying to work it out but it’s hard. He just doesn’t get it, you know. He keeps saying that colour has nothing to do with it! She could have been purple for all he cares! But it matters to me!
It just wouldn’t hurt so much if she was black. And our counsellor, clueless! Telling me we need to look at what was going on IN the marriage that let David look outside. But I just can’t get past the fact that she was white. [p. 28-29]
Incredible writing, and I can only imagine how much more powerful it would be on stage.
Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.