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The story that inspired 'How Black Mothers Say I Love You'

When Trey Anthony's grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the illness sparked an uncomfortable but eye-opening conversation about her past.

Playwright Trey Anthony opens up on Ottawa Morning about her family's story of separation

Trey Anthony's 'How Black Mothers Say I Love You' is playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa from March 6 to 25, 2018. (CBC Arts)

When Trey Anthony's grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the illness sparked an uncomfortable but eye-opening conversation about her past. 

At the time, Anthony had been reading The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, so she asked her ailing grandmother what regrets she had. 

She was expecting her grandmother to say she wished she had sought a higher education or travelled more.

Instead, her grandmother said her biggest regret was leaving behind Anthony's mother in Jamaica in the 1960s to establish a better life for her family in the U.K. — and that sometimes, mothers have to make difficult decisions their children don't understand.

That conversation was the catalyst for Anthony's new play, How Black Mothers Say I Love You, an introspective look at mother-daughter relationships, separation and reconciliation.

The play opened at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa last week. 

'It's still a very open wound'

As Anthony told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning, the play tells a story that's similar to her own experience.

Anthony's own mother also left her behind in the U.K., from the time she was six until she was 12, to start a life for her family in Canada.

To this day, Anthony said, she still hasn't fully recovered from that experience.

Even when I see ... what a six-year-old looks like with her mother, I still get teary. - Trey Anthony, playwright

"When you're a child left behind, even as an adult it's still a very open wound. I find my mother and I are still continuously healing," she said. "I do trace it back to that distance." 

Anthony recalled buying her first bra and having her first period while she was raised by her grandmother. 

"Even when I see, sometimes, mothers now, and I see what a six-year-old looks like with her mother, I still get teary," Anthony said. 

Seeing the play from the front row brought tears to Anthony's mother's eyes, she said. 

"You definitely cry. You go through a rollercoaster of emotions because, just like my family in real life, we're an emotional family. We're also a family of laughter, also a family in pain and dysfunction, like every single family," she said

"And I think all of us can relate to that."

The play features an original score that blends gospel, reggae, dub, and R&B with classical music by Juno-award-winning composer Gavin Bradley. 

How Black Mothers Say I Love You is playing at GCTC through March 25. 

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning