Race and revenge in Othello-inspired Harlem Duet

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Harlem Duet | Bard on the Beach | Sen̓áḵw / Vanier Park | June 15 – July 17, 2022

When Billie’s partner leaves her for a white woman, she descends into a depressive funk and buries herself in self help books while doubling down on her convictions about race and the importance of black people having their own spaces and distinct culture. “If you spend too much time among white people, you start believing what they think about you,” she says.

Djanet Sears’ play, inspired by Othello, raises important questions about race. Billie’s perspective is contrasted by Othello (Donald Sales), who says things such as, “I am not my skin” and “liberation doesn’t have colour.” Othello’s colour blindness infuriates Billie and she vows to seek revenge by soaking a special handkerchief in a potion she’s concocted. Marci T. House plays Billie with passion and conviction. She is consumed by the loss of her lover, the complicated feelings she has about race, and the strained relationship between her and her father. Her monologue about seeing Othello and his new girlfriend on the subway is visceral. Sales as Othello, in comparison beside House, is less sure of himself.

Billie’s father, Canada (Tom Pickett), visits after hearing about Billie’s situation. Estranged for years after Billie’s mother died, Canada gives an emotional speech about how much he loves Billie and how “a girl needs her mother.” It’s a moment of tenderness amidst Billie’s rage and explains a great deal about why she may react so strongly to Othello leaving her.  

Landlord Magi (Liza Huget) infuses a burst of energy and humour into every scene she’s in — much needed in a play dealing with such serious subject matter. She opens the show singing from the fire escape and explains that she’s having a baby — she just needs to find a suitable father first. Billie’s sister-in-law Amah (Marsha Regis) is strong opposite Magi as they discuss Billie’s situation. When Amah tells Bilie forgiveness is a virtue, she scoffs and says, “Girl, patience is a virtue.”

Almost all the action takes place in a beautifully detailed apartment (which on first look seemed a bit more 1970s than the 1997 setting). Occasional scenes take Billie and Othello back in time to different versions of themselves, still in love, and still dealing with the same issue of Othello falling in love with a white woman. Billie interrogates him as to whether he really loves her, and he is so assured of this fact every time. The white woman is Mona (as in Desdemona).

Creating a wonderfully immersive atmosphere are two live jazz musicians (Alexander Boynton Jr. and Marlene Ginader) and inter-scene voiceovers including Angela Davis, Martin Luther King Jr, and other prominent black activists.    

Billie is in the course of completing a degree and she explains her thesis boils down to “we’re all mad,” perhaps justifying her own madness and actions as she descends further from herself. Othello, also an academic with a faculty position at “Harlumbia” (Columbia), talks about being treated differently and his colleagues assuming he was a diversity hire. He is against affirmative action because he wants his colleagues to respect him for his work and not focus on his skin colour. Billie thinks Othello is whitewashing his life, caring more about fitting into white society than supporting black people and culture.  

Layered on top of the loss of a happy marriage, Billie’s feelings about race and blackness are complex and thought provoking. Othello’s perspective, while jarring at times, also raised important questions about how to manage diversity in our institutions. The infamous handkerchief remains a question mark throughout as we wait for it to make its way back into Othello’s hands.  

When Othello tells Billie he prefers white women because it’s “easier,” it’s as if all the air is sucked out of their apartment and Billie is visibly deflated. He is matter of fact and unapologetic, and this scene is written so strongly by Sears that we are immediately on Billie’s side, understanding why she would want to slit his throat with a razor blade.

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