William Shakespeare’s Othello has often made people uncomfortable. As the only black male lead in all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, this character is remembered most for the shocking act of murdering his white wife, Desdemona.
For decades, the part of Othello has been portrayed by white men with charcoaled blue-black faces (a rather unnatural shade, for any human), and eventually by black actors such as Paul Robeson. There is even an inverted version, starring Patrick Stewart as Othello, in an all-black cast.
Scholars and citizens alike have struggled with this character, who is both poet and lover as well as an insecure, crazed murderer. How does a man who has earned such a golden reputation, who loves so fully, become completely mad over a missing handkerchief?
Djanet Sears attempts to explain this in her prequel to the Othello story, Harlem Duet, which opened Oct. 24 at the Segal Centre. The story of Harlem Duet is meant to be the lead-up to the plot that takes place in Shakespeare’s Othello, however it takes place in post-civil rights America.
Directed by Mike Payette, Harlem Duet is told from the perspective of Othello’s first wife, Billie, who is black. Othello (played by Dave LaPommeray) abandons Billie in their apartment, located on the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Street, in order to move in with, support and marry his white mistress, Mona.
To say that Harlem Duet is multi-layered is an understatement. Sears has written a play that dives into the wild ocean of race and power, and then bursts into the air, revealing even more complexity than when it began.
The intimacy of the Segal Theatre provides ample viewing of the kitchen, stairwell and Othello and Billie’s bedroom. The talented cast further transport the audience into a world of hardship, passionate love, intellectual debate, heartache, and betrayal. Billie, brilliantly played by Lucinda Davis, used her portrayal of emotions to mesmerize the audience in every scene. Every single character left an impression, but the light-hearted Magi, played by Neema Bickersteth, and the forgivable Canada, played by Jeremiah Sparks, commanded the stage, with what appeared to be an effortless presence.
Why does Othello leave Billie, the wife he loved and cherished for nine years, for Mona? It is this question that is unravelled through the use of flashback, heated discussions (revealing Billie’s sharp intelligence) and various audio narrations between scene changes. These narrations included key bits of speeches and feature everyone from Martin Luther King Jr. to Morgan Freeman to President Barack Obama.
As we start to see Othello’s need to move to a white identity, in order to be seen as a “real man,” we also see that he is still in love with Billie, making him the most difficult character to digest. It is exactly this lack of ease, combined with explosive bits of humour, that make this play so outstanding. Sears has managed to simultaneously bring forth issues of the “whitification” of black characters, and the amount of injustices faced by black Americans. The most fiery and honest discussions occur between Billie and Othello, which beautifully reveal how perfectly these two fit together. All the while, we are painfully reminded that Othello feels that this type of sincerity does not serve him as man in American society, so he marches on in his plans to marry Mona.
Mixing themes of love, history, ideologies, race and colour, Sears, Payette, and the incredibly skilled actors at the Black Theatre Workshop have forged a genuine crystal of a play. This multi-faceted jewel will provoke different reflections for each viewer. Whether you have a background in literature, a curiosity about race in North America, or a wish to experience fantastic play writing and performance, Harlem Duet is an exceptional experience that is not to be missed.
Harlem Duet plays until Nov. 11 at the Segal Centre. For showtimes and ticket information visit blacktheatreworkshop.ca