Culture | Before Desdemona

Harlem Duet provides a conscious prequel to Othello

Harlem Duet explores the connections between race, jealousy, history, and the complications of love. It is a non-chronological prelude to Shakespeare’s Othello through the eyes of Billie, Othello’s first wife, as she experiences the misery of being left behind, after Othello leaves her for a new, whiter lifestyle. Written by accomplished playwright Djanet Sears and directed by born-and-raised Montreal director Mike Payette, this dynamically powerful drama explores the role that race can play between lovers, and whether love is ever sufficient. It ventures beyond the personal realm, into the political, in an interplay between love, race, and the fight for equal justice for Black Americans.

Although a prequel to Othello, Harlem Duet is not set in Shakespearean England, but in three different time periods: in the 1860s, in pre-Emancipation Proclamation America, in 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance, and in contemporary America, at the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevard. in New York City. Jeremiah Sparks, who portrayed Canada (a character in the play), said, “It is a beautifully written dark story filled with pain, and wrapped up in love.”

The talent of the carefully selected top-notch cast seems infinite: Lucinda Davis is an explosive Billie as she experiences the emotional torments that Othello, co-star Dave LaPommeray, brings upon her. Joined by Jeremiah Sparks, Neema Bickersteth, and Liana Montoro, this all-black cast is perfectly paired with the skills of director Mike Payette to produce a sensory theatre experience.

After undertaking the tremendous task of analyzing Othello, Sears conjectured that Othello must have had a wife before the young Desdemona, someone who shared his historical and cultural background.  The focus here lies entirely on her (and not on Mona – the modern day Desdemona), as she struggles to heal after being left by her common wealth husband of nine years. Due to the three time periods, there are multiple angles in which Othello and Billie are portrayed, which craftily integrate themes of identity within the black community, personal racial identity, and the role these forces play in their relationship.

In an interview with The Daily, Neema Bickersteth, who plays Magi, the landlady and the comedic undercurrent to the play; and Liana Montoro, who plays empowered and loyal sister-in-law Amah, said that it simply was not a question when asked to audition for the play. “Janet Sears is a goddess, and Harlem Duet is a revolutionary piece of work. It was a great opportunity to bring it back and so I jumped on the opportunity,” Bickersteth said.

Harlem Duet was originally produced at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre in 1977. After rave reviews, the play won the Governor General’s Choice award, four 1998 Dora Awards, and was shown again at the Canadian Stage the following year.

“It is a revolutionary thing that explores problems that we all deal with. It is a love story, but more, not only that,” Montoro said.

The play explores a struggle that is universal and relatable to all. “All the characters are trying to attain something that is missing in their lives,” Bickersteth explained. “When you think you’ve found something, something else sneaks up.”

I am sure that students and youth can relate to this as we wade the academic oceans to find our passions and figure out what exactly we are doing with our lives. This universal struggle nags at the essence of ourselves, desperately trying to convince us that there is something more, that we haven’t just quite finished yet.

“It will leave you beautifully perplexed,” Sparks said. “It is a play that will leave you with many questions, questions on life, and is something that you need to see and feel.”  Upon leaving the theatre, I felt the magnitude of his words as the lighting, heart-wrenching scenes, powerful script, and talent completely captured and gnawed at my mind. I remember hearing the hauntingly beautiful sound of their voices, both in conversation and song, and the echoing sound of famous speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.”

Harlem Duet runs from October 24 to Nov 11 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, 5170 Cote Ste. Catherine.


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