“Harlem Duet” sings: St. Louis Black Rep Company stages Djanet Sears’ award-winning play: power dynamics of interracial love spanning three eras
Ruth-Miriam Garnett and I have great “bumping into each other” luck. I first met Ruth at the St. Louis Poetry Center gala last fall. Subsequently, we’ve magically bumped into each other 1) on the metro platform at the Central West End; 2) at Wole Soyinka’s talk at the Black Rep with her friend Lavelle Wilkins-Chin; 3) and just yesterday in the Schlafly library after her writers workshop down the street on Euclid. This is a woman who gets around.
Ruth describes herself as “a poet impersonating a novelist…an editor and workshop coordinator.” Ruth-Miriam Garnett is the author of Laelia (Simon &Schuster/Atria) which I felt so fortunate to find in the stacks of my favorite bookstore in Godfrey, Illinois and further fortunate to have her sign it. Ruth has also written A Move Further South (Third World Press). She has recently completed a new novel, Chloe’s Grief and a new collection of poems, Concerning Violence.
Ruth and I enjoyed such a wonderful evening at the Black Rep’s staging of Djanet’s Sears’ “Harlem Duet,” (ends May 18th!) and Ruth, as the Harvard grad she is, stuns me continually with her level of conversation, I implored her to write a review of the production and she graciously agreed.—JGR
The St. Louis Black Rep’s staging of Canadian playwright Djanet Sears’ award-winning Harlem Duet made for an evening of theater at once enthralling and tense. The play raises enormous questions of power dynamics occurring in inter and intra-racial romantic liaisons spanning equally fraught historical contexts—the slave era, the early 20th century and a recent era substantially accommodating as well as frustrating the personal and professional aspirations of the two African American principal characters.
The female lead, Billie, and the male Othello, her husband, navigate the waters of love, betrayal, social identity and personal affinity in a story initially utilizing a thread from Shakespeare’s tragedy, then following its own equally weighted course. The chief value of this work is in effect the weight provided by Sears’ wrenching examination and expose of these character’s vulnerabilities and suffering. The high volume sensibilities portrayed ensure a certain clarity when viewing albeit mixed motives.
Othello’s abandonment of Billie for a white coworker is construed as his ticket to whiteness, read success as a Columbia University professor. Billie’s resulting disintegration is raised throughout, beginning with her turn as a slavewoman ready and willing to flee, only to learn that her mate’s loyalty and reciprocated love for their white mistress engender his decision to remain in the South. A similar disillusionment, as this scenario is revisited in the 1920’s, carries Billie along a murderous current.
In the contemporary scene, both characters survive, however, Bilie’s psyche is ravaged to the point of near disintegration and her life après Othello’s abandonment continues in a mental facility. The question becomes, is love this destructive an ideal worth upholding, let alone seeking, even if deemed to be an overwhelmingly common occurrence?
Other questions remain. Chief among these: Is Othello’s self-deification his own emotional construct, or is his infallible desirability a result of Bille’s self-negating projection? Think again, or at the very least, take a deep breath.
The leads—Cherita Armstrong (Billie) and Kingsley Leggs (Othello) are both believable and textured in this well crafted production.