Djanet Sears’ award-winning play Harlem Duet is back at Tarragon. This production serves not only as a welcome home to a critically-acclaimed Canadian work, but also as a reminder that the critical conversation that the play offered up in the 1990’s is far from over. After premiering in Toronto in 1997 as a Nightwood Theatre production at the Tarragon extra space, Harlem Duet is taking over the theatre’s main space. Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award, Floyd. S Chalmers Canadian Play award, and four DORA Awards, Harlem Duet continues to prove its painful relevance 21 years later.
Written and directed by Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet is both a non-chronological prequel and a critical commentary on William Shakespeare’s master work Othello. This Rhapsodic Blues Tragedy follows Billie (Virgillia Griffith), a young black graduate student living in Harlem. When her professor husband of 9 years, Othello, (Beau Dixon) leaves her for a white woman named Mona (Tiffany Martin), as in Desdemona, Billie is overcome with grief and jealousy. She is left to reconcile with the roles race and gender have to play in her divorce. As the play focuses on the modern couple’s story line, it also situates their conflict within the larger context of American history. The pair is recast as a slave couple in the American south in the 1860’s, before the Emancipation Proclamation, and again as actors during the Harlem Renaissance. In every iteration of the story, the man walks out on the woman, which allows Billie’s pain and vengeance to reverberate across history.
As the play explores the couples conflicting black ideologies and the subsequent decline of their relationship, Sears also addresses the limitations placed on black Americans using Shakespeare’s Othello as a through line. In the directors note, Sears writes, “Othello is the most well-known Black character in all of theatre. In fact, Othello has achieved archetypal status of mythic proportions. But portraits of Othello, the character, or Othello the syndrome (morbid jealousy), all appear to have been painted by non-Black people.” Sears uses the plot of Othello to illustrate how black people still struggle to break free from the limited roles white American society has allowed them to play, both on stage and in their every day lives.
Dixon embodies this struggle as both a black professor, struggling to find success in the predominantly white world of academia, and as an actor in 1920’s Harlem, longing to play a Shakespearian hero other than Othello. Dixon delivers a heart-wrenching performance, delivering compelling speeches about the unavoidable sacrifices a black man makes when seeking success in a white world. Dixon doesn’t allow his characters to be painted as villains. He manages to be both loathsome and empathetic, often in the same moment.
Griffith’s characters refuse to be neatly cast into the Shakespeare story line. At times, she appears to be playing Desdemona, in another moment she takes on the lines of the villain Iago, and in others she appears to play Othello himself. Griffith masterfully switches between characters and time periods, defiantly resisting being fixed into one role. She is not just a hero, a lover, or a villain, but a complex combination of all three. She lets the audience root for her and chastise her in a single scene. Despite this complexity, she is still fated to end up like Shakespeare’s Othello, brought down by her own jealousy, and the audience is left to sort out if her fate is justified or not.
Harlem Duet leaves the audience with more questions than answers, and that is where the show finds its strength. The entire performance is given a blues motif, which is highlighted by a live duet between Cymphoni Fantastique on the Cello and Bryant Didier on the stand-up base. Both musicians play the same instrument in a different way. This ongoing duet weaves two opposing styles together to create a conversation. The same conversation is happening between the characters in this show. Djanet Sears created a play without a clear definition of right and wrong. Instead, she allows her characters to react to the limitations of their own time and share in a painful, yet important conversation about how to move forward. Harlem Duet continues to pose new questions to a modern audience over two decades later.
Harlem Duet runs at Tarragon Theatre until October 28.