M Ensemble's Harlem Duet tackles racial politics
Framed with audio clips from resonant figures in black history such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, and even Oprah Winfrey, Djanet Sear's Harlem Duet weaves back and forth through time, from the plantation fields of the 1800s to the streets of Harlem in the late 1990s. Inspired by Shakespeare's Othello, the production tediously tows the line of racial identity, sexual politics, and mental illness in the black community. It's a lengthy, weighty play, and one that leaves us with no easy answers.
But thanks to a solid, impressive cast from the M Ensemble — Miami's premier African-American troupe — and the fluid direction of Lowell Williams at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, the story's complexity is made easy to grasp.
College professor Othello (Ethan Henry) has recently left Billie (Christina Alexander), his wife of nine years, for Mona, a white colleague who also teaches at his college. Billie is emotionally wrecked, even as her landlady Magi (Rachel Finley) and sister-in-law Anah (Yaya Browne) do what they can to console her and pull her through. Billie's state of mind is deteriorating; she has fitful dreams and has become estranged from her young daughter, and there's an uneasiness simmering beneath the surface of her view of race throughout the years.
Sears's script contrasts the historical snippets with Billie's personal anguish to suggest that interracial love has never been an easy subject in America. "The play deals with relationships on a racial level," Williams says. "What Djanet Sears is saying, I think, is interracial relationships have been going on for years but no one has talked about it."
Throughout the production, we see scenes of past black couples just like Othello and Billie (also played by Henry and Alexander) played out as they deal with these very issues. Billie's perception of Othello's betrayal — not just that he left her, but that he left her for an intellectually equal white woman — echoes through time as she tries to deal with her heartache and wrestles with her own viewpoints. All the while, she helplessly delves deeper into the abyss of madness, concocting a poison in which to soak a handkerchief with strawberry patterns that belongs to Othello. Shades of Shakespeare and interracial sexual complexities collide here, and the confluence resonates.
"The play [doesn't] mean to imply that every black woman goes crazy when her man leaves her or cheats on her," Williams says. "But it causes certain neurosis. Some of it is 'All men are dogs' or 'You can't trust a black man' and stereotypical statements like that."
Harlem Duet is a bold choice for the M Ensemble. Formed in 1971 at the University of Miami by the late T.G. Cooper, the company maintains a goal to promote African-American culture and experiences through the performing arts. Starting in the Edison Community Center and going through many incarnations, with plays performed in schools, churches, and libraries, the M Ensemble has made a mark. It was chosen to represent the Southern region of the United States at the 1972 World Festival of Black Arts in Nigeria, pioneered the nation's first drama workshop for the visually disabled, and implemented Miami-Dade's first drama program for at-risk youth at the Juvenile Detention Center. The company also received the 2008 Silver Palm Award for its production of From the Mississippi Delta.
Harlem Duet has won several prizes for Canadian playwright Sears, including Canada's Governor General Award for drama in 1998. Her script weaves a rich tapestry of African-American history, social and political strife, and even controversial moments, such as when an audio clip of the verdict of the O.J. Simpson murder trial is played. In the hands of a lesser theater troupe, the subject might seem bulky or forced. But the talented cast here pulls the audience through the play's many layers.
Christina Alexander's portrayal of Billie is a delicate balance of vulnerability and maddening rejection. She deftly allows her character's psychosis to seep in gradually, staying even-keeled when confronting Othello, while wrestling with her personal demons when alone and plotting revenge.
"Billie knows what she's doing is wrong," says Williams, who holds a master's degree in psychology from Kent State University and has been teaching drama at the University of Miami for the past nine years. "But she can't help herself. She's wrestling with hating and loving. I told Christina that she can't play both at one time, that it has to be moment to moment. When you hate you hate, when you love you love, so don't get caught up in trying to bleed them together. Billie's mental decline is a gradual transition."
Ethan Henry is a powerful stage presence. Previously seen in his scene-stealing performance in GableStage's The Motherf**ker With the Hat last month, he brings Othello's personal and existential crises to the surface with expert subtlety. What Othello has done to Billie is despicable. She put her own life on hold to help get him through college, and his decision to leave her for another woman — a white woman — is a betrayal.
Othello's plight lies beyond falling in love with another woman, though. He's also falling in love with the idea of being with a white woman. He cites his new-found intellectualism as a tool of enlightenment, telling Billie at one point: "I am not my skin, and my skin is not me." Henry pulls off Othello's seemingly contrived pragmatism wonderfully. This is a character who can easily become one-dimensional, but Henry lends Othello a robust complexity that makes him human, susceptible, and, ultimately, profoundly flawed.
At a little more than two hours, Harlem Duet runs a tad long. "I've tried very hard to get it under two hours," Williams confesses with a smile. "But so much is happening in the story that we just have to let it flow."
It's worth taking in, though. The performances are rich, and the compelling, emotionally resonant story digs in with multifaceted characters, a historical backdrop, and complex subject matter. The M Ensemble delivers the whole package splendidly.
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