“Do not press me to leave you,
to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God. – Ruth 1:16 (NRSV)
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: Richmond Triangle Players at the Robert B. Moss Theatre,
1300 Altamont Ave, RVA 23230
Performances: February 1-25, 2023
Ticket Prices: $10 – $40
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
Sometimes a production takes awhile to grow on you. Some shows are hard to connect with on a personal, emotional, social, literary, cultural or any other level. Just the opposite is true of Trey Anthony’s tender and amusing two-act family drama, HOW BLACK MOTHERS SAY I LOVE YOU. The author identifies as “a queer, black, Canadian, West Indian womyn” but their story is familiar to many Black women in Canada, the US, and the UK. I attended with my eldest daughter, and throughout the evening we looked at one another knowingly over our masks, reached for each other’s hands, cried out in instant recognition, or just cried.
The author may be a Canadian of Jamaican heritage, but the play is set in the Brooklyn, NY home of a Jamaican immigrant woman in 2014 (although I thought the furniture and kitchen appliances harkened back a decade or two – or three? – before then). Claudette (Zakiyyah Jackson), the prodigal queer daughter of Daphne (Dorothy “Dee-D” Miller) has returned home unannounced after several silent years in Montreal, Canada. Claudette finds her mother in poor health and her younger sister Valerie (Shalandis Wheeler Smith) doing her best to care for her, despite Daphne’s refusal to follow doctor’s orders – and the added complications of Valerie’s own personal struggles. Claudette has questions that her mother is not willing to answer. Daphne left Claudette and Valerie with their grandmother in Jamaica for six years while she got established in the US.
Family secrets are painfully and reluctantly revealed, along with social and cultural histories that could bringing health and healing to many families and enlightenment to many allies. The story is brought to life by a small but mighty cast, led by Miller, the matriarch. I’m not Jamaican but I married into a Jamaican family and I found Miller’s accent spot on. She dropped the “h” where you expected to hear it and added it where you did not expect it. She called children “pickney” and pronounced the word “little” as if it were spelled with two k’s instead of two t’s. She won me over completely when she spoke about the baby’s “ackee seed eyes.” That’s how my mother-in-law used to refer to my children! My daughter looked at each other and shrieked in unison as my heart melted into a puddle on the floor. (Don’t worry, RTP staff, melted hearts do not stain the carpet.) Of course I looked to see who the dialect coach was and just as I suspected, it’s Erica Hughes. Kudos to Hughes for another amazing job.
[If you are familiar with ackee, you can skip this next paragraph.]
BTW: the ackee fruit is a Jamaican dietary staple, an essential ingredient in the Jamaica national dish of ackee and saltfish (i.e., salted cod). When ripe, the ackee plant yields fleshy yellow lobes that somewhat resemble scrambled eggs when cooked with saltfish. The fruit has shiny black seeds that people – especially Jamaican grandmothers – liken to the shiny bright eyes of babies and young children. The kicker is that, in its un-ripened state, ackee is quite poisonous.
Jackson and Wheeler Smith achieved a remarkable balance between sibling rivalry and sisterly love. Their affection appeared genuine and as the story unfolded we found that it was grounded in a history of collective trauma – unique to them, but familiar to many families whose histories are defined by the African diaspora. Significantly, my daughter wondered how these themes spoke to white viewers. This would be an interesting dialogue to introduce in a talk-back…
Let me not forget to mention Cloe. The younger, American-born sister of Claudette and Valerie who died in childhood from an unnamed illness, Cloe appears as a silent ghost. Dressed in white from head to toe, Bailey Robinson, a Henrico County Public Schools student, made her professional debut as the sometimes meddlesome, but mostly caring specter of young Cloe whose presence is welcomed and visible to Daphne – and sometimes, it seems, to Valerie. Claudette knows she is there, but cannot see her. The presence of Cloe is another strong symbol of ancestors and spirituality.
The set is a Brooklyn home sturdily and lovingly crafted by William Luther and tenderly lit by Dakota Carter. I did wonder, however, why there were several long periods of darkness or dimmed lights. Perhaps these stretches were meant to serve a visual equivalent of the dramatic pause, or to contrast with the bright white heavenly light that illuminated the runway that Cloe used to transition between the present and the hereafter. Or maybe it was just to allow for a costume change.
Margarette Joyner (founder and artistic director of the Heritage Theater that formerly closed its doors in 2022) designed the costumes, with special attention to Daphne’s collection of church hats and Valerie’s collection of coordinating handbags and shoes. Desirée Dabney directed through the eyes of a storyteller. The work and words flow with a sense of real time and a feeling of intimacy and immediacy.
HOW BLACK MOTHERS SAY I LOVE YOU is a stunningly beautiful work of theatre, one I was not familiar with, one I will not forget. See it with your mother or daughter. And take tissues.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
HOW BLACK MOTHERS SAY I LOVE YOU
By Trey Anthony
Directed by Desirée Dabney
Daphne …………….Dorothy “Dee-D” Miller
Claudette …………….Shalandis Wheeler-Smith
Valerie ……………. Zakiyyah Jackson
Cloe ……………. Bailey Robinson
Daphne Understudy: Diana Carver
Claudette Understudy: Nora Ogunleye
Valerie Understudy: Chayla Simpson
Cloe Understudy: Sydnee Logan
THE CREATIVE TEAM
Director/Sound Design: Desirée Dabney
Assistant Director/Dramaturg: Chayla Simpson
Production Stage Manager: Jennipher Murphy-Whitcomb
Assistant Stage Manager: Nathan Ramos
Scenic Design: William Luther
Lighting Design: Dakota Carter
Props Design: Tim Moehring
Costume Design: Margarette Joyner
Hair & Make Up Design: Jahara Jennae
Intimacy Choreographer: Raja Benz
Dialect Coach: Erica Hughes
Technical Director/Scenic Painter: Becka Russo
Covid Safety Officer: William Luther
Marketing Videos: Aisthesis Productions
Photo Credits: Pre-production photos from RTP Facebook page
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