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Harlem Duet: intriguing, but (for me) muffled music

by | Jun 25, 2022 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Harlem Duet

Marci T. House and Donald Sales (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Something is out of focus here. Maybe it’s me.

Djanet Sears’s 1997 script Harlem Duet riffs on Othello — and it takes on a lot.

The action of Sears’s play unfolds in three time periods. In the core narrative, we’re in Harlem in 1997. In the event that triggers the play, the central character, Billie, who’s a grad student in psychology, gets dumped by Othello, her partner of nine years. He’s a prof at Columbia. Billie and Othello are both Black and Othello is leaving Billie because he’s fallen for a white colleague named Mona. Billie sees Othello as both a romantic traitor and, significantly, a race traitor. Othello’s betrayal strikes at the most fundamental levels of her identity. “Is her skin softer?”, she asks.

The brief scenes that exist in other time periods leave the impression that this pattern of abandonment is enduring, at least centuries old. In 1860, an enslaved woman dreams of escaping to Canada with her man, but he feels held back by his devotion to their white mistress: he thinks she needs him. In 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance, a Black vaudevillian leaves his partner when he, too, falls in love with a white woman.

The play presents this male fecklessness as a form of aspirational whiteness. The actor longs to perform the great roles from the European canon, including Othello. And Billie’s sister-in-law Amah refers to an old story about a Black man who wanted to become white, so he tried the “magic” of having sex with a white woman: “In one single, shining moment,” she says, “he became her, her and her whiteness.”

These ideas are arresting, but Sears limits her examination of them. The arguments I’ve just outlined all support Billie’s position, and this one-sidedness undermines the play’s ability to establish a dynamic discourse.

In all his incarnations, Othello is basically an asshole. In 1997, he starts to make the potentially persuasive argument that Billie’s brand of Black feminism pre-emptively undercuts his sense of self-worth. He protests that he’s not the kind of Black man who behaves irresponsibly … but then he does. “I prefer white women,” he says. “They’re easier before and after sex.” And he uses the language of dominant-culture liberalism: “Liberation has no colour”; “I am not my skin. My skin is not me.” Rather than making the play thematically richer, the two secondary timelines mostly make it repetitive.

For me, Harlem Duet gets more rewarding when it explores the corrosive nature of reactivity — this play’s version of the inflamed jealousy of Shakespeare’s Othello. Referring to white people, Billie’s landlady Magi asks, “Is every moment of your life eaten up thinking about them?” And, pointing out the precariousness of an identity based in opposition, an identity that is defined by the terms of the oppressor, Amah warns, “If I don’t forgive my enemy, he might just set up his house inside of me.”

This thematic turn comes relatively late in the play, however. For most of the evening, I was only moderately engaged.

Partly, that’s because I got a little lost in director Cherissa Richards’s production.

Sears’s text is poetic, often affectingly so. When Billie talks about seeing Othello and Mona from behind in the subway, for instance, she longingly describes the softness of the skin just beneath his hairline. Earlier, she has told Othello, “Sometimes, when we make love, every moment lines up into one moment.” Marci T. House, who’s playing Billie, commands this language and covers a huge range in her characterization: the grief, the volumes of rage, the humour, and the desperation as Billie starts to tilt towards madness.

The play also contains more abstract passages in which Billie and Othello debate racial and feminist politics in academic terms. House maintains a firm grip here, but I was less persuaded by Donald Sales’s performance as Othello. Othello is supposed to be the more established academic, but it felt to me like Sales’s Othello had only a shaky command of these arguments, and, overall, he brings less emotional force to the field.

I also experienced an odd disconnect between House’s Billie and Liza Huget’s portrait of Magi, the landlady. Partly, that’s about the writing. As written, sassy, man-hungry Magi could be a character from a sitcom, and that sits oddly with Billie’s world of high tragedy. I suspect these realities could co-exist more easily if they found more common ground in a base level of naturalism — which would require less exaggeration and more internality from Huget.

And, of course, as I watched Harlem Duet, I was constantly questioning how much my minimal engagement had to do with my perspective as a white man. I’ve never experienced a sense of racial betrayal in a romantic relationship. Harlem Duet helped me to begin to identify some of the terms of that dynamic but, in this production at least, I never felt it deeply.

HARLEM DUET by Djanet Sears. Directed by Cherissa Richards. A Bard on the Beach production. On Friday, June 24. Running on the Howard Family Stage until July 17. Tickets


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