To open season number 15, Blue Heron Theatre is
presenting the New York premiere of Djanet Sears award-winning drama,
HARLEM DUET. Spanning 1860 to today, and told in a non-linear format,
this modern tragedy has timeless qualities to it. Part conventional play,
partly a nod to the heritage of oral history, and part political diatribe,
as a whole the work comes together quite cohesively.
HARLEM DUET spans three time periods (1860, 1928,
contemporary Harlem). The story lines, similar in that they involve a couple
parting ways, overlap during the course of the play. The entirety of the
work is imbued with a heightened form of speech in that no one ever utters a
phrase that is altogether basic. Words are invaluable to the plot here, and
are charged with meaning and import beyond the dialogue itself. There is
also an element to the work that lends itself to being a prequel to William
Shakespeare’s "Othello." Here, one of the main characters, named Othello
(Gregory Simmons) in every time period, leaves his partner, Billie (Perri
Gaffney), in favor of a relationship with a white woman called Mona
(alluding to the Desdemona wed to Othello in the Bard’s play).
In each time frame, the betrayal of Billie leads to
tragedy, but it is not only her personal story in play here. There are
historical elements all around. In 1860, Othello and Billie live in a United
States that, as yet, has no Emancipation Proclamation (that went into effect
on January 1, 1863). In 1928, they exist during the Harlem Renaissance. In
contemporary Harlem, they live with the ghosts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
"dream." HARLEM SONG tells us the tale of Billie and Othello while
providing a view of the cacophony alive in Billie’s head with sound effects
that heighten as her rage and madness build. These are subtle, simple
touches, but they work.
HARLEM SONG is quite a clever creation, drawing, as
it does from a wealth of source material. If audience reaction says
anything, at the performance I attended some members of the crowd were so
engaged by Djanet Sears’ dialogue that they yelled back at the actors much
as one would at a television set. Now, that’s something.
- Kessa De Santis -