Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Djanet Sears’ powerful “rhapsodic blues tragedy, “ Harlem Duet, is onstage at the Tarragon again, 21 years after its world premiere there. The play received Dora, Chalmers and Governor-General’s Awards, and was the first script by a black Canadian produced at Stratford Festival (2006); it has also been produced in New York.
I did not see earlier productions, but seeing it now, I find the play relevant for today and (like Shakespeare and Greek tragedy) for all times. The playwright asks the question, “Who would Shakespeare’s character Othello be if he were alive today…in my world?” As in the blues, the play has a musical, linear and non-linear quality. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
It is an imagined “prequel” to Othello marrying Desdemona; specifically, the story of a Black man leaving the Black woman he loves for a white woman and her world. As in the past, Sears directs her own work; she has deft, taut hand.
The drama unfolds, like reflections in a time-mirror, during three crucial periods in U.S. history: the main story is set in present-day Harlem, in an apartment at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards. This is interspersed with scenes set in a cotton plantation in the South in 1860, shortly before emancipation, and a Harlem theatre dressing-room in 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance (a flowering of Afro-American art). The strawberry-embroidered handkerchief which plays a vital role in Shakespeare’s Othello is also an important element in these three riffs on the story: a symbol of love enduring and love betrayed.
The love story is set in historical context; quotes by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and others are broadcast through a sound-system before and during the play.
Astrid Janson’s wonderful set includes an actual field of cotton, alongside the modern-day apartment. The 1860’s slave couple (Her and Him) play their scenes downstage in the thickest part of the cotton, but the cotton remains in later times, a tangible sign of the effects of slavery. (“The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past,” as former President Obama says in one of the sound-bites, quoting William Faulkner). For the 1928 couple (She and He), a small table and props are carried on-stage, then removed.
The present-day Harlem couple are Billie (short for Sybil) and Othello. Virgilia Griffith and Beau Dixon play all three couples. They are beautiful to watch together, but it is Griffith’s character who is the heart of the story. The modern Othello is a professor at Columbia who leaves Billie, his partner of 9 years, for Mona (as in “Desde-), a white professor in his department. Billie is devastated, jealous, enraged, veering toward madness. Griffiths shows Billie’s desperation in a heart-rending way, but also shows her keen intellect and her earlier joy in life. Billie has also suffered loss as a child; her mother died when she was young and her father turned to alcohol and eventually left to live in Nova Scotia. (I will return to him later).
Dixon is, by contrast, more laid-back, but it is clear he also loves Billie, while struggling for recognition. Othello says, “I am more than my skin,” in trying to explain his relationship with Mona, but also says that being embraced by a white woman makes him feel more like a man and is an entry into the white world – words echoed by He and Him. We are all human – yet we have different histories of oppression and privilege, often because of skin colour and prejudice. “The skin holds everything in,” Billie says at another point in the play.
Martin Luther King’s speech “I have a dream,” echoes throughout the play, and becomes part of Billie’s nightmare; we also hear Langston Hughes’ poem, “What happens to a dream deferred….does it explode?” Sears asks questions which matter to all of us, and which have no easy answers.
Billie’s friend and land-lady Magi, played with warmth and sometimes broad humour by Ordena Stephens-Thompson, and her sister-in-law Amah, portrayed by Tiffany Martin with grace and compassion, both try to comfort her; they feel her reaction is too extreme. Amah and Magi are both strong women who are at peace with their lives: Amah, a hair-stylist, is married and a mother; Magi, a good cook and fancy dresser,, is openly looking for a husband. Amah suggests that Billie forgive Othello and that racism and hate are like toxic viruses that can infect Billie herself. Although they mean well, they cannot touch Billie’s trauma, which is generational as well as personal. That is part of the tragedy.
Even Billie’s father Canada, played by Walter Borden, who returns to apologize and reconnect with his daughter, cannot quite reach her – though he stays with her at the close of the play, showing his love. Borden is a wonderful actor who brings life, energy, and many dimensions to his character; Canada as a person as well as a place does become a source of refuge.
Throughout the play, live music is provided by cellist Cymphoni Fantastique and bassist Bryant Didier. Allan Booth has done a great job as sound designer and music director, and Andre du Toit’s lighting design is excellent, especially as it plays over a large, mysterious backdrop painting.
There is one short, funny scene, done in mime, as movers take boxes and furniture out of the apartment; this reminded me of Shakespeare’s comic relief, often with manual labourers, in the midst of tragedy. In a deeper sense, the movers’ dismantling of the set reflects Billie’s disintegration. Will she be able to heal?
Harlem Duet is at Tarragon Mainstage through October 28.