Harlem Duet

by Djanet Sears
Nightwood Theatre, Toronto
(Playing at Tarragon Extraspace)
April 20 to May 18, 1997
A Stage Door Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw
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Harlem's two solitudes

From the creator of Afrika Solo, Nightwood Theatre presents the world première of a bold and daring new play, Harlem Duet written and directed by Djanet Sears and now playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace. Sears spins an ambitious and timely tale written with style, wit, intellect and above all, compassion. Coupled with a polished and highly intelligent production, this is the essence of courageous theatre. 

Williams and Sealy-SmithBilled as a rhapsodic blues tragedy, Harlem Duet is the prelude to Shakespeare's Othello, and recounts the tale of Othello and his first wife Billie - she's the one before Desdemona. Recalling their previous stint with Othello in their production of Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet, Nightwood have a critical and artistic success on their hands with Harlem Duet. Sears describes Harlem as "both a place and a symbol.... It represents the best and the worst of everything about people of African descent.... ...There is an actual intersection that serves as the theoretical axis of the arguments in the play." Billie and Othello's apartment is set here, at the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards. Omnipresent are the themes of self-esteem and race in concert with the contrasting black/white schism advocated by Malcolm X and the integration of Martin Luther King's "dream." As we enter the play's world, graduate student Billie discovers that her husband, Othello, has fallen in love with another woman...'Mona, who's white. We never see 'Mona, save for her voice and the quick glimpse of an alabaster arm, a dissonant counterpoint with the other characters. Sears, who has said that Harlem Duet is Billie's story, paints a rich and complex canvas depicting the dissolution of Othello and Billie's relationship. 

The baggage of contemporary North American black experience is presented in a series of flashbacks. Billie and Othello are also a slave couple planning a ride on the Underground Railroad of the 1860s; and a struggling classical actor reduced to demeaning minstrel shows, and his jealous wife, in the vaudeville era. In all three situations, Othello is consumed with the desire to experience the advantages of white society. Taking a white woman to his bed is the first, and fateful, step.

Billie and Othello are played by Stratford and Shaw veterans Alison Sealy-Smith and Nigel Shawn Williams. Sealy-Smith has said, "Billie's dream is about having a man - her 'sable warrior' - a family and a career, that can all help change the world and make it safe for blacks. She sees it as an oasis, a source or sustenance and strength. The play is about the loss of Billie's dream." Sealy-Smith's magnetic stage presence is immediately apparent. As Billie, she delivers the character with empathy, intensity and credibility. A consummate actor, Sealy-Smith moves seamlessly between scenes effecting every emotion from shimmering joy to shuddering collapse. 

While the tragic flaw in Shakespeare's character was jealousy of his Desdemona, Sears' Othello is consumed with jealousy of the white advantage. He joins Chris Iago (!), a fellow professor at Columbia University, in opposing affirmative action and other social schemes identified with advancing the black agenda. Recognizing that this is Billie's story, actor Williams keeps Othello's emotions bubbling just below the surface. Williams builds his character slowly, a crescendo of passion climaxing in a fiery soliloquy attacking Billie's ideals.

Sears, in directing her own work, has assembled a fantastic trio of supporting actors. Her script sparkles with witty and often hysterical lines, and Barbara Barnes Hopkins, playing Billie's landlady and confidante, Magi, gets them all. Magi plans "to have a baby this time next year," and with only three months to find a father, already has optimistically booked the church. Magi's own history descends from her grandmother's liaison with her white employer who, after his death, saw that his black offspring inherited the building that Magi now owns. 

Playing Billie's levelheaded sister-in-law Amah is Dawn Roach. Amah's life centres on her devoted husband and young daughter. Jeff Jones plays Billie's reformed alcoholic father, Canada, visiting Billie from Nova Scotia after a long estrangement. Particularly effective is his lecture to Othello, counselling him to stick with the purity of Madeira sugars, and "beware the refined" (white) stuff.  

While this is not, as might have been expected, a musical, the action is complimented with a curious mix of cello and double bass by onstage musicians, Doug Innis and Jack McFadden, and audio clips of historic black speeches. The audience arrives in the theatre with the words of Jamaican national hero Marcus Garvey. A series of voice-overs throughout the play offer the varying viewpoints of such notables as Booker T Washington, Martin Luther King Jr, Jessie Jackson, Clarence Thomas and Louis Farrakhan. Sears uses this device very effectively, illustrating Billie's and Othello's differing experiences. 

Designer Teresa Przybylski has created a single set comprising a Harlem walk-up appropriate to a struggling young university couple, surrounded by the cotton fields of their slave ancestors. Othello's preppy clothing and Billie's colourful caftans serve the characters' dissidence. Simple on-stage costume changes effect the smooth scene transitions as we move frequently from flashback to present day. The simple stage is brought to light by Stage Door Award nominee (Blyth Festival, Fireworks) Lesley Wilkinson's lighting design.

Sears has successfully created a sprawling and literate piece that may become a defining work of the black experience. Harlem Duet is playing until May 18, 1997 at the Tarragon Extra Space, 30 Bridgman Avenue. For tickets ($10 to $16) phone the box office at 531-1827. Don't miss it.


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