Review: Harlem Duet (Tarragon)

Harlem Duet explores powerful themes of race and feminism, on stage in Toronto

Making its triumphant return to the stage at the Tarragon Theatre, Harlem Duet, written and directed by Djanet Sears, is a masterpiece of Canadian theatre.

Blending Shakespearean elements with the raw nuances of blues, this tragedy told in two acts explores powerful themes of racism, feminism, personal history and self worth in a story that is troubled, powerful, and deeply moving.

Harlem Duet exists as a loose, non-chronological prequel to Shakespeare’s Othello set in Harlem, New York during three pivotal moments — present day Harlem in 2000, the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd and Malcolm X Blvd (now 125th St and Lennox Ave) in 1928, and Harlem, Georgia in 1860.

Present day sees the desperately strained yet still passionately fired remains of a relationship between Othello (Beau Dixon) and Billie (Virgilia Griffith). After nine years together, Othello has ended his relationship with Billie and is leaving her for a white woman, a member of the faculty at the university he is teaching at. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and Billie is violently tossed amidst feelings of despair, remorse, and vengeance.

The other time periods reflect a similar story in varying contexts. In 1928, Othello is an actor abandoning his beloved in order to perform for his white patron, even if it means making a mockery of his race. In 1860, Othello is a slave who ultimately chooses to stay with his slave master rather than run away from with his love.

I went to this performance with my partner Vance and immediately our first impression was of the stage designed by Astrid Janson and how beautifully detailed it was — a modern and lived-in Harlem apartment consisting of kitchen, living room, and bedroom designed without walls for flow, a trench of a cotton field cuts through it seamlessly. The motif of the cotton field is throughout the apartment. It’s truly stunning.

Cellist Cymphoni Fantastique and bassist Bryant Didier play Harlem Duet‘s backing music live throughout the show. Their music paired with the select audio recordings featuring sound clips from Martin Luther King Jr among others put together by sound designer and music director Allen Booth, do great work to set the atmosphere and the mood throughout the show.

Harlem Duet‘s cast truly deserve the standing ovation they received. It’s a small, tight cast for a long show that requires quite a bit of emotional heavy lifting. To begin with, Griffith and Dixon are breathtaking in their roles. Beyond just having to work through the emotional trauma that both characters require but to have to switch dialogue delivery from modern day speech to spoken word and Shakespearean iambic pentameter.

Ordana Stephens-Thompson is a delight in her role of Magi, the friend and landlord. Her character interjects some much needed humor into the story in a way that fits perfectly with the tonal shifts of the play and without seeming out of place. She’s bubbly and lovable the kind of person who’s stories and anecdotes I could listen to all day.

When Walter Borden’s character is introduced — Canada, Billie’s estranged father — I was hoping more would be revealed about some of the underlying themes that had been revealed. Billie is originally from Nova Scotia, and when the play shifts to 1860, Canada is mentioned as the place where slaves can escape to and be free. But ultimately I didn’t quite get any sense of revelation when his character enters the play. Aside from him being the father, that should have been more present.

It’s difficult to put into clear and concise words how dynamic and powerful Harlem Duet is. The issues raised here regarding intersectionality, black feminism vs white feminism, and the race divide opens many doors for further discussion. I could go on for pages here about the topics explored and what it means for women and people of colour, but this is not the space for it. It is sufficient to say that this show is both beautiful and ugly in all the right ways. It needs to be seen and it needs to be discussed.

Details

  • Harlem Duet is playing at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Ave) until October 28 2018.
  • Performances run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 pm with weekend matinees at 2:30 pm.
  • Tickets are $60 general admission, $29 students, and $49 seniors 65+.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, over the phone by calling 416 531 1827, or in person at the box office.
  • Run Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with intermission.
  • Audience Advisory: Mature themes and strong language. Viewer discretion is advised.

Photo of Virgilia Griffith by Jim Ryce