Trey Anthony Unfolds Tale of Absent Mom, Angry Sisters
by Barry David Horwitz
How can a Black mother say, “I love you” to two daughters who believed she abandoned them in her native Jamaica when they were small? She was lured to the U.S. for a better life, but she had to work three jobs in New York just to get by. Her little girls were stranded with Granma in Jamaica.
It was not easy to be a Black mother in New York, at the bottom of the workforce. In a touching final monologue, Carla Banu Dejesus, as Mama Daphne, touches us and fills the intimate theater with her confusion and soul-searching.
At the Spark Arts Gallery on 18th and Castro, director Tanika Baptiste slowly unfolds the pangs of an overworked Black mother’s love. Playwright Trey Anthony writes movingly about how the past affects every moment of the present. And the ghost of a dead child provokes understanding in the living.
Back in the 50s, Mamma Daphne, like many other Jamaican women, took the opportunity of changed laws to emigrate to the US. But they found out that they were stuck in maid’s roles and underpaid—the law was a trick.
Young mother Daphne left her two lgirls behind—for six years, until she could afford to send for them. But now, in New York, her grown up daughters cannot forgive their abandonment as children.
Years later, in Daphne’s cramped Brooklyn apartment, with a wonderfully realistic operating kitchen, the two grown sisters debate with their mother, who is refusing to continue her cancer treatments.
Older sister Claudette (assertive Elizabeth Jones), an out lesbian visiting from Montreal, in jeans and sweatshirt, talks tough. Two years younger sister, sweet-talking Valerie (compassionate Keldamusik), wears her hair blond, long, and straight, like a Vogue model. Valerie tries to make peace with charming smiles. The sisters share the abandonment that shaped them and humbled their Mom.
As the over-worked, exhausted Mom, dynamic Carla Banu DeJesus brilliantly plays elusive and defensive. Mom is always ready to go to church in a great hat and pray for them, but not to explain the past.
Daphne, is too ill, disheartened, and worn out to discuss what happened in Jamaica. She pleads the “I’m too tired to talk about it” excuse—the bane of adult children. The ailing Mom even throws guilt and shade on her lesbian daughter:
“Why don’t you wear a dress? …. or a hat—how you gonna find a man like that?”
Mom quotes the Bible, finding comfort in Jesus and the communal spirit of her church. Daphne wants her girls to turn to the Church, too, to answer their life-long accusations. For her, Jesus is the answer. And fabulous big hats.
But the ghost of Daphne’s youngest child Cloe (delightful Monique Hightower-Gaskin) hovers around them, leading each woman to a revelation. Wordlessly, Cloe’s ghost provokes sympathy for the other. They each must deal with Cloe’s death, as she moves like a dancing muse into their lives. It’s a serious communication with their spiritual lives.
“Black Mothers” shows how a burdened immigrant mom can be trapped by dreams, and how adult children can be released, in a play full of insights about the people around us.
“How Black Mothers Say I Love You” by Trey Anthony, directed by Tanika Baptiste, scenic design by Seafus Chatmon-Smith, theatre design by Joe Talley, by Theatre Rhinoceros, at Spark Arts, 4229 18th Street @Castro St., San Francisco. Info: TheRhino.org – to April 3, 2022.
Cast: Carla Banu DeJesus (Daphne), Monique Hightower-Gaskin (Cloe), Elizabeth Jones (Claudette), and Keldamusik (Valerie).
Banner photo: Monique Hightower-Gaskin, Keldamuzik, and Elizabeth Jones. Photos by Vince Thomas