An ambitiously complex and satisfying work about interracial marriage, ghettos and the whitening of black history and culture, Djanet Sears' "Harlem Duet" is a mature work mining for old answers in a new quarry. No polemic or political lecture, the play uses the greatest of literary giants to crack open fresh revelations: On its simplest level, "Duet" tells the deeply disturbing and moving story of Othello's first wife, Billie, the woman (as told by Sears) whom Shakespeare's warrior left behind as his star ascended. Recently workshopped Off Broadway at the Joseph Papp Public Theater and then brought to Toronto's Nightwood Theater for its premiere, "Harlem Duet" is an audacious idea, blending fictions as backdrop to an examination of slavery, racism and segregation. Othello and Billie play out their tragedy in scenes throughout history, first as the unwritten subtext to Shakespeare's play, then in the cotton fields of the Old South, in 1920s Harlem and, finally, in the present. The cycle of action and reaction remains the same, as Othello gropes toward assimilation, in the process violating everything Billie holds dear.
Sears (who also directs) has written a story unique to the black experience, but with a universality in the agonizing questions asked by all marginalized cultures. On a platform set surrounded by cottonfields, Sears’ intimate drama of two ordinary lives takes on symbolic value, with scenes connected by recorded speeches highlighting the conflicting philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. There are many threads woven into the harsh cloth of “Harlem Duet.”