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August, 2006 - Nr. 8


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KW & Beyond

  by Irena Syrokomla

Irena Syrokomla

Harlem Duet at Stratford Festival

In the program notes for Harlem Duet , Djanet Sears says she has always had an urge to write. Although she always wished to express herself in the most truthful fashion, she could not find it in the roles she was given in her early years. So she started to write herself. As quoted from her own words: "She had a dream that one day in the city where she lives, at any given time of the year, she will be able to find at least one play that is filled with people that look like her. For most people of European descent, this is a privilege they take for granted." She is black.

Harlem Duet is an example of the rising black theatre. The play is written and directed by a black woman, all actors are black, the subject is dealing with the history and experiences of black people. Or is it?

Nigel Shawn Williams as Him and Karen Robinson as Her  [photo: David Hou, The Stratford Festival of Canada]

The play is really constructed on three levels, and I am unable to say which of them is most prominent. I suppose it depends on who is watching. At the performance I attended about one third of the audience was black.

It is a story of a black university professor who has fallen for a white college colleague and decides to divorce his black wife. His name happens to be Othello, the white woman happens to be Mona. The discarded black first wife’s name is Billie.

So – there is one layer of the story, the black couple divorcing because he has fallen for a white woman: the issue of racial differences, the betrayal of the history, his black wife, his background, his faith, the attraction to the white woman.

On the second level it is a story of Othello before he met Desdemona. He was married, and given the opportunity to be with a white lady, he left her. From that moment on we have the famous Othello. There are full Shakespearian quotations woven into the dialogues, it is uncanny to hear the name of Jago, the voice of Desdemona on the intercom, to hear the past story of the handkerchief so vital in Shakespeare’s drama. So Othello was not so noble after all.

The third layer is the drama of a woman betrayed and abandoned by her husband.

Sophia Walker as Amah, Walter Borden as Canada and Karen Robinson as Billie  [photo: David Hou, The Stradford Festival of Canada]

Memories of the years past, past history and past hopes. The last meetings, when he is picking up his things, the last glances, the last moment of passion. The phenomenal dissection of moments of confusion between the past, natural gestures and so automatic responses and present pain. The acting of Karen Robinson as Billie and Nigel Shawn Williams is extraordinary. The audience was absolutely frozen in silence watching the facial expressions, small gestures, body language. It was not Shakespeare nor a black/white issue, it was the drama of woman betrayed.

To complete the atmosphere, two musicians in the background play gentle blues or jazz motives. The Studio Theatre is the perfect setting for such a play, and the fact that the Stratford Festival has taken upon itself to stage and present the black production is especially significant. Finally we are having something besides the strictly European/American white culture and I will be looking for more plays written by Djanet Sears. She is the star to look for.

The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead

Another play worth seeing is The Blonde, the Redhead and the vengeful Redhead also in Stratford, and also in the Studio Theatre. It is written by Robert Hewett, an Australian, and directed by Geordie Johnson. Lucy Peacock  [photo: David Hou, The Stradford Festival of Canada]In this one actress play, all six characters -as they appear- are played by Lucy Peacock. Needless to say it is quite a load on the shoulders of one actress, two hours of acting alone with just a few props. And acting she does.

The story is of a suburban housewife (the Redhead) being informed by her husband that he is leaving her. Next-door neighbour (the Brunette) points out to her the woman at the local mall implying she is the object of the husband’s interest. The Redhead attacks her with unbridled fury, and, in the course of the catfight the woman is badly injured and dies.

Lucy Peacock as Rhonda  [photo: Laird Mackintosh, The Stradford Festival of Canada]Lucy Peacock presents the six sides of the story, the betrayed Wife the Redhead, the Neighbour Friend the Brunette, the Partner of the dead woman (who incidentally had nothing to do with the Husband), the pre-teen Son of the dead woman, the incidental Blond and finally (and I think the best of all) the Wondering Husband.

She is excellent in her nonchalance, innocence, manipulation, indifference, pain or lonely despair, depending on the character.

Lucy Peacock as Tanya  [photo: Laird Mackintosh, The Stradford Festival of Canada]It is a play presenting different points of view and different aspects of the same events, the story of coincidences resulting in a tragedy affecting several innocent bystanders, the sadness of it all. At the end the Redhead housewife is in jail for murder, the actual partner of the husband is scot-free and the adulterous husband wonders, "What does it all have to do with me?"

The stage design is by Michael Gianfrancesco, now in his 6th season with Stratford. The idea of Lucy Peacock changing costumes and wigs behind the lit-up screen is ingenious, and projecting pictures related to characters as presented on the big screen is very dramatic. What a talent! What an idea!

Both plays run till September 22-24, sometimes as matinees. Both are very much worth a trip to Stratford. The box office phone is 1-800-567-1600; or see the schedules and choices on the web site


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