Ignoring Intersectionality at the Expense of a Woman: A Review of Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
Premiering with Nightwood Theatre twenty-one years ago, Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet has made its grand return to the Tarragon Theatre, this time in the Main Space. The remounting of the play gives Sears the opportunity to recreate her timeless piece for a contemporary audience. Addressed in the programme as a “non-chronological prequel to Shakespeare’s Othello,” Harlem Duet sets about to expose the backstory of Othello, the origin of his cursed handkerchief, and bring to the forefront the woman he deserted.
It is a time where prejudicial arrests, injustice, and hate speech are combated with collective activism across a multitude of platforms which include the #MeToo Movement, the Women’s March, and Black Lives Matter. While some may feel that society as a whole has made insurmountable progress from a time of segregation, inequality, and blatant racism, the twenty-first century provides a rude awakening that humanity has a long way to go before peace and respect for intersectionality is achieved. Due to these current circumstances, the remounting of Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet was not a question of ‘if,’ but a question of ‘when’.
Focused in three distinct time eras but primarily around contemporary Harlem, Sears creates a narrative around Billie and black history. With Othello rejecting his heritage in favour of assimilating into white academia culture and becoming the ‘ideal black man’ for his fiancée Mona, he creates external and internal conflict within Billie and the heritage she is proud to carry. Her sense of self is no longer good enough for her beloved, resulting in the slow deterioration of Billie’s mental state. The play suggests that the emotional trauma Billie suffers is not singularly at the fault of Othello, but the metanarrative that he is contributing to: decades of oppression and being regarded as an ‘other’ in a dominant white America where black women are inferior to their white counterparts as well as black males, whose success and desirability is measured by white approval.
The remounting of Harlem Duet is necessary and deserves a wide-spread audience. Djanet Sears creates and directs a tragic postcolonial play that is rooted in the racism black females face through marginalization, colorism, and ignorance of intersectionality. This play accurately reflects issues that are current in our modern society. Why does Othello feel the need to whitewash himself in order to assimilate into academia, gain respect of his white colleagues, and feel it is too hard to be with a black woman today? Why is it that in order to be desirable, Billie must relinquish her hold on history and cultural pride? Sears encourages her audience to take up this discourse and acknowledge the intersections of life that each one of us brings to the table, prompting her viewers to think of the experiences our peers face behind closed doors.