Tarragon Theatre opens the new season with a 21-year old drama
There is a Rose in this Canadian Harlem
Review by Stephen Weir
Harlem Duet, currently on stage at the Tarragon Theatre is attracting much attention. It is selling out most nights of its Toronto six-week run.
There is nothing new about this 21-year old drama. Certainly not with the script which was written by Guyanese/Jamaican/Canadian Djanet Sears back in 1998. Nor is there a new message found in the plot line of the North American Black experience. It is a story of loyalty, revenge, love, madness and, of course, racism depressingly repeated over three generations in Harlem and the Deep South.
So why is Harlem Duets packing the mid-town Tarragon Theatre these days? It is the acting – the passion that some of Toronto’s best known Caribbean Canadian actors bring to the stage in a telling of age-old social problems that still impact the community today.
The standout star is Virgilia Griffith (who the Camera wrote about in reviews of Soulpepper’s Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Obsidian’s Other Side Of The Game), Caribbean Canadian musician and actor Beau Dixon (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) and Scarborough’s Ordena Stephens-Thompson (best known for starring in the television sitcom Da Kink in My Hair)
Djanet Sears’ play (she is the director at the Tarragon too). Nor is there a new message found in the plotline of the North is actually a prequel to Shakespeare’s Othello. Can’t remember the Bard’s play about the noble 16th century black warrior? Don’t let it stop you from seeing Harlem Duet – only English major wonks will enjoy the script’s subtle references. Shakespeare’s Othello takes place in 16th-century Venice. Othello is in the Venetian army. He is much loved by all but hell breaks out when he secretly marries Desdemona a beautiful white woman who is the daughter of a prominent senator named Brabantio.
In Sears’ play Othello (Beau Dixon) is a college professor living with his wife Billie (Virgilia Griffith) in a walk-up at the intersection of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Harlem. He leaves his grad student wife (after using up her inheritance to pay for his degree) for a white co-worker.
Billie believes he is dumping her to win white approval from his colleagues. Beau takes all of the couple’s furniture and possessions save for their marriage bed. Billie resorts to Voodoo after this stinging abandonment. When the magic doesn’t work madness ensues.
The play time-travels back to 1860 and a Southern USA plantation. Othello, a blacksmith slave, woos Billie and agrees to escape to Canada with her. He backs out because he can’t leave his white mistress and is lynched.
We see a second Othello in 1920s living in the same Harlem apartment. This Othello is a classically trained actor who is forced to play blackface to survive. Like all the other Othellos, he cheats on Billie with a white woman and pays dearly for his transgressions.
|Cymphoni Fantastique and Bryant Didier|
At the core of three duets in Harlem Duet us the profound question about race not just between Whites and Blacks but within their own communities.
This is a sprawling 21/2 hour story, told on a small stage with a two string players providing music (including a Rose in Spanish Harlem) is a makeshift orchestra pit (, ). The Rose in this Harlem comes with many many thorns.
Harlem Duet runs from September 18 - October 26, 2018, it officially opened Wednesday, September 26. The theatre is located near CasaLoma 30 Bridgman Ave, Toronto.