Trey Anthony shot to fame after her first play, Da Kink in My Hair, lit up the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001. Her latest work, How Black Mothers Say I Love You, is similarly autobiographical, taking inspiration from the fraught relationship she shared with her own mother, who left England to build a life in Canada when Anthony was nine years old. Here, she discusses those lost years, finding empathy through art and why familial slights cut the deepest.
How Black Mothers Say I Love You examines the fallout between a mother, Daphne, and her young daughters, after she leaves them behind in Jamaica in order to build a life elsewhere. How did you come to this plot?
It was the history of my own family. A few years back, I was reading a book called The Five Regrets of The Dying and, around the same time, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. She’d been a very stoic, proud woman, so she didn’t talk much. I asked, “Grandma, what is your biggest regret?” And she said, “Leaving my children behind in Jamaica. Especially your mother; she never forgave me.” I really wanted to examine this history, which I knew was a painful one, but none of us spoke about it. It was a way for me to reconcile with these two very powerful women in my life.
So your grandmother left your mother, and your mother left you.
They were really sold on the dream: make money, then send for your children. I was separated from my mother for four years, and I don’t think we ever really recovered [from that].
You always hear the “better life” side of the immigrant experience, but you also have to think, these kids are growing up without parents. What are the ramifications of that?
My mother and I never talked about what happened in those in-between years. There are things I remember very clearly, some of which I talk about in the play: getting my period without my mother being there to explain it; going to my friends houses to get my hair braided; getting my first bra. I kept thinking, “If my mother was here, she’d do those things with me.” Many therapy sessions later, I realized it set me up with a level of unworthiness. If the one person who was supposed to choose you, hasn’t, what does that say about you? We really underestimate what distance does to a family — especially to daughters.
Chatelaine also recently addressed the mother-daughter dynamic, and how many things remain unsaid. Why is that?
In my family, a lot of it came down to respect. Culturally, there are a lot of layers: I’m 40 years old and, even now, my mother will say, “I’m the mother; you’re the child” when she thinks I’m asking things I shouldn’t be. Her whole thing was, as long as your basic needs are being met — food, clothing, shelter — what do you have to complain about? In my family, we’re big jokers, but we don’t talk about emotions. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve seen my mother cry.
I can understand how, from the perspective of someone who immigrated, there’s so much worse than feeling sad about a slight.
Exactly. There just wasn’t time to have those conversations with my mom — she was working three jobs to provide for her family. A lot of mothers, especially immigrant mothers, are in survival mode. You wanna talk about how nobody was there for your period? Let’s talk about paying rent.
The play is called How Black Mothers Say I Love You. Is it different than other cultures?
Because I started writing the play about how my own mother showed me love, it was specific to my culture. But I had Jewish friends say, “That could so be my mother.” I’ve heard Filipino nannies say how relevant the piece is to them. I now realize it’s a very universal story.
Have you and your mother been able to make up for those years?
We’ve done the best that we can. We actively work on relating to each other, but it’s definitely been a struggle.
I’m sure age helps, but has art healed you too?
Once you hit 40, you start looking at the world a little differently, but my writing is very therapeutic. Seeing this on stage, people feel conflicted —they side with the mother and her daughters. The heartbeat of the play is really, “Let’s forgive more, because we wish to be forgiven.” The birth of my nephew two years ago also drastically changed my family. He always says “I love you,” and he’s always coming in for hugs and kisses, so we all started to do that with each other. We started to think, if we can be gentle with this little person, how come we can’t be this gentle with each other?
How Black Mothers Say I Love You runs through May 15 at Toronto’s Factory Theatre.