HARLEM DUET written and directed by Djanet Sears (Stratford). Studio Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to September 22. $64.40. 1-800-567-1600. See Out of Town, page 102. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Harlem duet goes on the record books not just because it's Stratford's first show with an all-black cast, but also because it's one of the finest pieces of contemporary theatre the festival has mounted.
We've seen it twice in Toronto, and this production, directed by playwright Djanet Sears , reunites several actors who've performed in the show previously. They've lost none of their dramatic fire over the years.
In a poetic script that uses Shakespeare's Othello as a springboard for the timeless cancer of racism, Sears looks at the effect of hatred on an individual and a culture.
Set largely in contemporary Harlem, her play focuses on Billie, the black wife of Othello, whom he leaves for the white Mona.
All are academics, and Sears gets in a few zingers at the power games involving black and white, male and female played in the (tellingly) ivory tower of academia.
The playwright complements this rich story with parallel tales set in 1860 involving a pair of slaves and in 1928, when a black minstrel he must blacken his face further to perform for white audiences dreams of becoming a classical actor. In both side stories, a Billie-like figure supports her man but might lose him to a white woman. In the scene changes, Sears adeptly blends the voices of well-known black activists with the private lives of her key characters.
As the resentful Billie, who plots revenge in all three tales, the vibrant Karen Robinson practically burns up the stage. Intense even in moments of distraction, her Billie is so compelling that I could watch the tension emerge from the twitching toes of her bare feet. The best scenes involve Robinson and her Othello, the equally fine Nigel Shawn Williams ; their passionate chemistry is tender one moment, dangerous the next.
A secondary story involving fathers and daughters how Shakespearean is comic and touching, and reaches the heart in the final scenes between Robinson and Walter Borden . Barbara Barnes-Hopkins finds the humour in the man-hungry Magi, while Sophia Walker , who showed her budding talent at Ryerson Theatre a few years ago, brings warmth to Billie's sister-in-law Amah.