Inspired by Shakespeare's Othello, Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet, which opened this weekend and is performed by the M Ensemble at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse (404 NW 26 St., Miami), is a production that 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 its complexity is made easier to grasp by a solid and impressive cast.
The play is framed with audio clips from resonant figures in black history like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Paul Robeson, and even Oprah, as the story weaves back and forth through time -- from the plantation fields of the 1800s, to the streets of Harlem in the late 1990s (the play was written in 1997).
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, has become estranged from her young daughter, and there's a simmering uneasiness in her view of race throughout the years boiling beneath the surface.
Throughout the play, 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 throughout history. 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 to dip a handkerchief with strawberry patterns sewn into it that belongs to Othello. Shades of Shakespeare and interracial sexual complexities collide here, and it resonates.
Harlem Duet 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 O.J. verdict is played. In the hands of a lesser theatre troupe, the subject matter might seem bulky or forced. But the talented cast M Ensemble assembles here pulls the audience through the play's many layers.
Christina Alexander's portrayal of Billie is a delicate balance of vulnerability and rejection. She deftly allowed her character's madness to seep in gradually, staying even keeled when confronting Othello, while wrestling with her personal demons when alone, plotting her revenge.
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, and here, he brings Othello's personal and existential crises to the surface with expert subtlety. Henry pulls off Othello's seemingly contrived pragmatism wonderfully. This is a character that can easily become one-dimensional, but Henry lends Othello a robust complexity that makes him human, susceptible and, ultimately, profoundly flawed.
Look for our extended review in this week's issue.
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Harlem Duet runs through March 25 at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse (404 NW 26 St.). Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Call 786-953-8718 or visit themensemble.com