Harlem Duet takes to the Stratford Festival stage

“I have a dream. A dream that one day in the city where I live, at any given time of the year, I will be able to find at least one play, that is filled with people that look like me, telling stories about me, my family, my friends, my community.”

– From nOTES of a cOLOURED gIRL:32 sHORT rEASONS wHY I wRITE fOR tHE theatre, by Djanet Sears.

This summer, York theatre alumna, renowned playwright and director Djanet Sears (right) (BFA ’99) is putting her dream in motion – with a few firsts along the way! When Harlem Duet opens June 29 at Canada’s Stratford Festival, Sears will make history. She will become the festival’s first playwright of African descent and its first black female director. It will also be the first time that an all-black cast appears on a Stratford Festival stage.

Sears describes her play, Harlem Duet, as “a rhapsodic blues tragedy [that] explores the effects of race and sex on the lives of people of African descent” and “a rich tapestry of love, revenge, loyalty and madness.”

Those familiar with Shakespeare will recognize Harlem Duet as a prequel to Othello. Sears’ retelling of the romantic tragedy is set in the 19th and 20th centuries, and focuses on Othello’s relationship with his first wife, Billie, before he leaves her for Desdemona. Billie, like Othello, is black. (Interestingly, in Sears’ play, Othello’s new love, a white woman, is solely an off-stage character.) Betrayal, an age-old theme for scribes, is usually to be taken personally. Yet, by being left for a white woman, Billie interprets this betrayal as having both political and cultural implications.

Harlem Duet has been reaping accolades since it was first staged by Nightwood Theatre at the Tarragon Extra Space in Toronto in 1997. The original production, also directed by Sears, won four Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Direction. The following year it won a Governor General’s Literary Award and the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award, and was published by Sirocco Press.

Right: A scene from Harlem Duet

Critics have hailed the play as “an ambitiously complex and satisfying work about interracial marriage, ghettos and the whitening of black history and culture” (Variety) that is “filled with intelligence and compassion, humour and anger, outrage and understanding” (Toronto Star).

Why did Sears feel compelled to rework one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies?

“As a veteran theatre practitioner of African descent, Shakespeare’s Othello had haunted me ever since I was introduced to him,” she explained. “Othello is the first African portrayed in the annals of Western dramatic literature. In an effort to exorcize this ghost, I have written Harlem Duet.”

Sears originally studied in York’s Department of Theatre in the 1970s, and returned to complete her BFA in 1999. Since her days at York, she has been no stranger to trail-blazing in the theatre world. Her play, Afrika Solo, produced in 1989 at the Factory Theatre in Toronto, was Canada’s first stage play by a person of African descent. When Mirvish Productions picked up Sears’ play The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God for a run at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre in 2003, it was the first time that a black Canadian playwright was featured on the playbill of Canada’s largest commercial producer.

Sears sees writing as a craft that she has chosen to nurture. “For the many like me – black and female – it is imperative that our writing begins to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as integrate the most painful of experiences.”

In her “duet” at Stratford, Sears is joined by not one, but three other Yorkies. Sherri Catt (BFA ’02) is the assistant designer for Harlem Duet as well as the Stratford Festival’s production of Twelfth Night. Former theatre student Elissa Horscroft is the technical director for both the Studio Theatre and the Tom Patterson Theatre at Stratford. Another former theatre student, Natasha Gascho, is the Studio Theatre’s assistant lighting designer.

Harlem Duet runs from June 29 until Sept. 22 at the Studio Theatre in Stratford. To see blogs, vlogs and interviews of this production, click here. On Aug. 20, also at the Studio Theatre, Sears will be reading from her works as part of the theatre’s annual Celebrated Writers Series.