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A little piece of Harlem at the Segal
Article mis en ligne le jeudi 18 octobre 2012

Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Moraga and Francois Dupraz

Hamlet Duet cast members, from top left to right: Jeremiah Sparks, Neema Bickersteth, Liana Montoro, Dave LaPommeray, Lucinda Davis

Black Theatre Workshop is presenting the Montreal premiere of Djanet Sears’s multi award-winning play, Harlem Duet. The bold prelude to William Shakespeare’s Othello will be taking centre stage at the Segal Centre for a limited run.

Harlem Duet sets out to recount the continuous struggle of the African-American fight for equal justice in America, with a narrative spanning over 130 years. Set in New York City, on a Harlem corner near Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards, the play is told through the eyes of Othello’s first wife Billie, a black woman who is left behind as Othello abandons her for a white woman.

“This might be one of the most beautiful and brilliantly woven plays that I’ve read in recent history,” said director and NDG native Mike Payette during a telephone interview. “Djanet has managed to put together several large ideas: race, relationships and literature, because this is a hypothetical prequel to Shakespeare’s Othello. She’s taken those three elements and created something that I think is both enchantingly beautiful and highly theatrical, but most importantly deeply resonant to a mainstream audience.”

Payette explains that both lead characters, Billie and Othello, make arguments about race, as well as the integration versus the segregation of cultures, that might be a little overwhelming for some audiences at first. “One can get sort of lost in those theories and forget the fact that what’s at the heart of the play is a love story. That’s really the most important thing for me as a director.”

Payette doesn’t undermine the theme of racial struggle prevalent throughout the play, which goes back and forth between three distinctive time periods in African-American history: before Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed American slaves, the 1920s Harlem renaissance, and present-day America. “The struggles that African Americans have been dealing with are just as prevalent now. The difference is that it’s easier to talk about them, and that is what I think is present in this script and what we’re really exploring.”

The NDG native knows a thing or two about inequality. In 2010, he and seven other artists co-founded the Metachroma Theatre Company, whose main mission is to address the underrepresentation of visible minority actors in Canadian theatre and to “normalize” their presence on stage. Their inaugural production was a successful presentation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, which Payette acted in at the Segal.

“I’ve never done so much back and forth for such a long period of time before this year,” added Payette, who juggles acting, directing and producing. “The hats and the disciplines sort of bleed into each other. The challenge of going from Richard III to Harlem Duet was intense, but apparently that happens all the time,” he joked.

The director urges audiences to come out and see this engaging play, which he is convinced is going to spark discussion. “This is the first time this show is being done in Montreal. It’s not going to come again for a very long time. Who knows when?”

Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Drama and the Chalmers Play Award, Harlem Duet runs from Oct. 24 to Nov. 11 at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte-Sainte- Catherine Rd.

[ Sarah Geledi ]

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