The artistic and executive director of the frank theatre company, Fay Nass, isn’t Black. And Nass was born in Iran, not Jamaica. Yet the nonbinary queer theatre artist felt compelled to direct Trey Anthony’s play, How Black Mothers Say I Love You, about a Jamaican family in Canada.
That’s because of what the upcoming production says about relationships.
“It’s a play about empathy,” Nass tells Pancouver by phone in advance of its run at the Cultch Historic Theatre. “It’s a play about love; it’s a play about parental love—sisterhood, as well.”
The director—who uses the pronouns she, he, and they—has long been interested in how immigrants navigate through things that are said and left unsaid. Nass is also keenly aware of how their love can often be expressed through actions rather than words, including with LGBTQ+ children.
“That may not always look the same way from the western Euro-centred framework of queerness,” Nass states.
As examples, Nass notes that unspoken affection can be displayed in connection with food, by offering a blanket, or even through making tea for a family member.
“They’re seeing you and loving you,” the director declares.
How Black Mothers Say I Love You concerns a Jamaican mother named Daphne (Celeste Insell), who came to work in Canada in the 1960s. Under a federal program, she was allowed to enter the country and work for six years if her two school-age daughters remained in Jamaica.
Through this program, which has since been cancelled, Caribbean women could qualify for permanent resident status.
Nass has addressed Jamaican culture before
“So many, many, many, many Caribbean women had to leave their children behind in order to come and create a better life,” Nass says.
The play explores what happens after a mother decides to do this to help her family. It’s set in a Caribbean-style apartment. One daughter, Valerie (Kerën Burkett), is now married. The other, Claudette (Alisha Davidson), is an adult lesbian.
Nass really appreciates how the playwright, Anthony, created such nuanced characters.
“The writing is so beautiful,” Nass says. “It’s so realistic. The characters are so well-developed.”
It’s not Nass’s first play involving Jamaican culture. In 2020, Nass directed She Mami Wata & the Pussy WitchHunt, starring d’bi young anitafrika, at the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
“Through the relationship with d’bi young anitafrika, I found so many similarities,” Nass says. “Both of us moved to Canada when we were 16 with our gender, our queerness.”
Moreover, both had to navigate through very different circumstances in public versus private spheres.
Nass could be open about gender expression and queer identity at home in Tehran, thanks to a very loving mother, father, and extended family. But in public, it was a different story growing up in the 1980s and 1990s in the Islamic Republic.
“I couldn’t be myself at school,” Nass says. “There are things you don’t talk about. You don’t say that Mommy and Daddy are drinking whiskey. I had to kind of cover up and live this dual identity in public and private spaces.”
At the same time, Nass mentions that there’s a higher level of acceptance of same-sex relationships and queer identity in the big city of Tehran compared to rural villages in Iran.
Good thoughts, good words, good deeds
Prior to the 1979 revolution, same-sex people courted openly and formed relationships, according to Nass. This occurred even if the language used at the time did not explicitly state that they were homosexual.
Meanwhile, friends who’ve returned to Iran in recent years have told Nass that LGBTQ+ communities still exist in the country. However, they must be careful to avoid coming to the attention of the Revolutionary Guards or the morality police.
Nass points out that in the national language of Farsi, there is no “he” or “she” and just one letter for the third-person pronoun.
“Even if you go back historically to Rumi’s poetry, one never knows if Rumi was talking about his lover or God,” Nass adds. “I know most people want to say he was talking about God.”
In fact, Nass suggests that an open-minded attitude even existed in pre-Islamic Iran during Zoroastrian times. This was the state religion for more than a millennium until it was replaced in the seventh century with the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia.
The basic tenets of Zoroastrianism are “Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta”, which translate to “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds”.
According to Nass, these ancient beliefs—as well as the works of Rumi and other Persian poets—demonstrate that love has been a central element of Persian culture going back thousands of years.
“That kind of softness—as long as you love, love is a beautiful kind of thing—triumphs over many, many other aspects,” Nass states.
The Cultch will present the frank theatre company’s production of How Black Mothers Say I Love You at the Historic Theatre from November 2 to 12. For more information and tickets, visit the Cultch website or the frank theatre company website.