Celebrating its 25th anniversary, Djanet Sears’ Governor-General’s Award-winning drama Harlem Duet comes to Bard on the Beach during its 33rd season.
Taking inspiration from Shakespeare’s Othello, directed by Cherissa Richards, Harlem Duet explores the complicated relationship of a Black couple during three different eras of the American Black experience: Plantation era pre-US Emancipation Proclamation; the Jazz-Age New York City Harlem Renaissance; and in post-civil rights 1997.
In each timeline, the story follows a woman, going through the stages of heartbreak following her partner’s betrayal – leaving her for a white woman. While the 1997 storyline is the anchor point, history drifts in and out of the storyline like dreams in the fitful sleep of Billie the modern-day protagonist. Are her dreams, sometimes violent, echoes of historical trauma from her ancestors, or are we seeing this strong, intellectual woman slip into madness as she feels her love Othello has betrayed her and their black community for the love and acceptance of a white colleague.
Marci T. House plays Billie with intensity and rage that percolates throughout the plays 130 minutes, eventually boiling over like the chemistry sets she’s using to learn about ancient Egyptian tinctures. Donald Sales’ Othello is evenly moderated, barely raising the temperatures above simmer, only occasionally rising to meet Billie’s fire and ire. Each of them holding differing views on race, relationships, respect and privilege that seems to have grown further apart as they advanced their education and careers. Their contrasting temperaments and opinions reflecting how complicated a person’s lived and historical experiences can become when dealing with the topics.
While this emotional tempest is happening, Liza Huget’s vivacious neighbour/landlady Magi, reminiscent of Wilona from Good Time, parts the smoke with comedy and care as she tries to help Billie hold herself together. Billie’s estranged father Canada (Tom Pickett) shows up unexpectedly to further fan the flames and confusion swirling around Billie’s mind. Pulled one too many directions with the grounding visits by sister-in-law Amah (Marsha Regis) and reality of trying to ‘get better’ to see her beloved (off-stage) niece Jenny, how can Billie cope with it all?
Rachel Forbes set design grabs your attention as soon as you enter, making the Harlem brownstone inviting and disarming the audience before Harlem Duet throws all its emotions upon us. Having musicians Alexander Boynton Jr. (bass) and Marlene Ginader (violin) provide the soundtrack live on-stage also helps to set the scenes of Harlem, home of the oft-mentioned Apollo Theatre. Scene stealing Magi is the welcoming force in this brownstone you’d want to sit on the stoop or fire-escape with as she shares the inside gossip of what’s happening upstairs with ‘that couple’.
Find out how Billie copes, or if Magi snags a husband, or if Othello does move on as Harlem Duet continues at Bard on the Beach in the Howard Family Stage until July 17, 2022.
Show details and tickets available at bardonthebeach.org