Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet is a prequel of sorts to Shakespeare's Othello. Here Othello is a college professor in late-'90s America who is in the process of leaving Billie, his African-American wife of nine years, for Mona, a white woman and fellow faculty member. The separation is not going well, not even by the nasty standards of marriage dissolution. Billie is broken emotionally by the experience, and in the tradition of grad students everywhere, she throws herself into a deep analysis of her and Othello's relationship, questioning black identity versus black perception of identity and — most devastatingly — turns her considerable intellect (and obvious bias) toward the topic of interracial marriage.
It's easy enough to write those words, because none of you will respond directly — this is a monologue. Much more difficult is a dialogue about the bugbear of interracial relationships: black man and white woman together. Americans of all races still get hinky about it, even when nothing is said on either side; even when your mother is white and your stepfather is black (as in my own experience), discussion of the ramifications of the relationship is not eagerly sought. So, you know, I have my own biases, just as Billie does. But that's the power of the theater — a public dialogue about the things we don't wish to talk about, where biases are not coddled and favor is not curried, is possible onstage. And Harlem Duet, the current Black Rep production, hits all the high points and doesn't skirt the low points of this debate. It's a tough, honest, briefly comic and occasionally painful representation of what we talk about when we talk about interracial love.
Sears' script diffuses the action through three timelines: the 1860s, 1928 and 1997. Scenic designer Tim Case's intricate set features all three periods in a nonchronological line across the stage, with the modern Harlem apartment flanked by the two earlier periods. The cramped slave quarters lurking in the periphery are a constant reminder of the past, even in the shadow of the Apollo Theater's iconic sign. Ron Himes' direction is subtle and spirited, but with ten scenes in each of the play's two acts, the changeovers are frequent and do at times disrupt the flow. Snippets of speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and, most affectingly, excerpts from the O.J. Simpson trial, play during these lulls, further evoking the difficulties of mixed marriages.
As Billie, depressed and adrift in the remnants of her life, Cherita Armstrong delivers an exemplary performance, conveying the hopelessness and blistering rage of the rejected. It is the latter that drives her to seek revenge on her wayward husband, anointing his white-and-strawberry handkerchief (fans of Shakespeare's play will recognize the importance of this) with an herbal poison.
As much as this is Billie's story, Kingsley Leggs' Othello is no one-dimensional villain abandoning his wife. Intelligent and self-aware, he's also conflicted about what he's doing to Billie; Leggs keenly portrays Othello's great doubt — does he love Mona, or does he love a white woman named Mona? — and he sounds the very darkest nooks of his own identity in a shattering confrontation with his ex-wife. "I am not my skin. My skin is not me," he tells Billie defiantly. Coming hot on the heels of his admission that even in academia he's dismissed by peers because of his race, you wonder if this is the rhetoric of Dr. King turned to Othello's own advantage, or does he really see himself this way?
People are complex and conflicted, capable of piercing insight and shocking blindness. Harlem Duet considers this, and plays out several variations of America's silent theme with bluntness and grace. It's a good show done very, very well.
Just don't be surprised if you're not certain how best to talk about it when it's over.