Award-winning play Harlem Duet tells story of modern Othello

Katie Pfeiffer Harlem Duet

Douglas A. Jones, Jr. and Olivia Harewood star in Harlem Duet, being performed in Roble Studio Theater.

If Othello were alive today in North America, who would he be exactly? Suppose he were first married to a black woman? Who would she be?

Djanet Sears' award-winning Harlem Duet, to be performed by the Stanford Drama Department at 8 p.m. May 15-17 and May 22-24 in Roble Studio Theater, recounts the story of Othello and Billie, his first wife before Desdemona. As the play opens in Harlem in the 1990s, a young black teacher at Columbia University, Othello, has just walked out on his wife of nine years, graduate student Billie, to marry Mona, a white colleague on the Upper East Side.

Flashbacks link their imbroglio to other aspects of the North American black experience: a slave couple planning an escape to Canada on the Underground Railroad in 1860 and a classical actor reduced to playing in black minstrel shows in 1928. In all three cases, "Othello" wants to experience the advantages of the predominant white society.

Canadian playwright Sears, whose father was Guyanese and her mother Jamaican, called the play "a rhapsodic blues tragedy [that] explores the effects of race and sex on the lives of people of African descent. This non-chronological prequel to Shakespeare's tragedy weaves a rich tapestry of love, revenge, loyalty and madness."

Harlem Duet received Canada's highest literary honor for dramatic writing, the Governor General's Literary Award, in 1998. That year it also received the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award. Harlem Duet was revived in 2006 at the Stratford Festival, North America's largest theater festival. It was the first black work to be produced in the festival's 54-year history, the first to be directed by a black director (playwright Sears) and the first with an all-black cast.

The original production, directed by the author, also won four Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including Outstanding New Play or Musical and, for Sears, Outstanding Direction. The production was workshopped at the Public Theater in New York, where Sears was the international artist-in-residence in 1996.

The New York Times praised the play's "undeniable emotional power." Variety called it "an ambitiously complex and satisfying work about interracial marriage, ghettos and the whitening of black history and culture."The Toronto Star wrote, "This is an impressive achievement, an ambitious and accomplished work with scope and the vision to realize it, a drama filled with intelligence and compassion, humor and anger, outrage and understanding."

At Stanford, Sears will direct a student and professional cast, including Aleta Hayes, dancer, actress and Stanford lecturer.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 Stanford faculty/staff and senior citizens, $5 students. Advance tickets are available online at Call 725-5838 or e-mail with questions and for group sales. Any tickets unclaimed 10 minutes prior to curtain may be released to a waiting list.