Djanet Sears’ Harlem Duet is a fresh look for Bard on the Beach

The play steps beyond the white gaze under director Cherissa Richards

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Harlem Duet poster: a promotional poster of two people standing next to each other from behind a table of various vials and fruits. The person on the left is shrouded in darker blue light and the right person is in warm orange light. Tents: White carnival tents with red flags on top of the points pictured on a sunny day with a blue sky and mountains in the background. The sign at the gated entrance reads “bard on the beach,” and an adult and child are walking through the open gate
Bard on the Beach, an annual Shakespeare festival, started to expand beyond putting on Shakespeare productions in 2005. Emily Cooper (Harlem Duet poster) and (tents entrance)

By: Isabella Urbani, Staff Writer

This year’s 33rd Bard on the Beach will include Canadian playwright Djanet Sears’ 1997 play Harlem Duet. The festival was initially created with a focus on Shakespeare but has since branched out. Sears’ dramatization of Othello, directed by Cherissa Richards, will be performed alongside productions of Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

According to the event description, Harlem Duet “explores the complicated relationship of a Black couple in three key periods in the American Black experience: 1860, before the US Emancipation Proclamation; 1928, during New York’s Harlem Renaissance; and in post-civil rights 1997.” This journey through time aims to examine race, privilege, and relationships. 

These characters were created by Sears, “exploring what it meant to be of African descent,” said associate artistic director of Bard on the Beach Dean Paul Gibson. He added, “Being exposed to Shakespeare and other great writers influenced [Sears] to tell stories about Black people and Black environments.” Harlem Duet, Gibson said, does this through an “evocative, sensual, challenging world.”

The decision to bring Harlem Duet to the stage came to fruition during the pandemic and after the death of George Floyd, which sparked weeks of protest across North America in June  2020. “It was important to put focus and spotlight on Black excellence and develop new relationships,” said Gibson. When a colleague shared their experience watching Sears’ play in Toronto, Gibson knew he had to take a look at the script. 

“I was smitten; I was blown away by its beauty, poetry, and structure. In my mind, it reminded me about the reasons why we stepped outside of Shakespeare.” In 2005, Bard on the Beach made a commitment to feature other playwrights and more contemporary works. He added that despite taking small leaps in featuring more inclusive productions, they still mainly featured white writers and directors. In 2019, Bard on the Beach put on All’s Well That Ends Well but set in British India to explore the occupation and partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Harlem Duet continues Bard on the Beach’s commitment to culturally relevant content. 

Gibson referred to the play as a sort of prequel to Othello as it sheds light on Othello’s life with his first wife. “[Sears] is fleshing out a character that was woefully underwritten because it wasn’t written by a Black man,” he explained. According to Gibson, Sears does this through “her perspective as a Black writer, delving into ‘what if?,’ ‘what does that mean?’ and examining the different time periods and the history of Black people on this continent.” 

Harlem Duet is directed by Cherissa Richards, who was greatly influenced by Sears’ work as a playwright. The play features a supporting crew and cast made almost entirely of people of colour. Gibson said Sears has been very clear about the direction of the play and Bard on the Beach has worked in collaboration with her to ensure her vision is brought to life.

Gibson shared that this will be a change not only felt by the cast, but by the entire audience. “When I am a young person going to the theatre for the first time, and I see someone who identifies in a similar way to me, and I see that reflection on stage [ . . . ] then the possibilities seem endless.” 

On the festival’s progress in showing plays written and directed by people of colour, Gibson admitted progress has been slow. However, he emphasized the need, responsibility, and commitment to showing more art from people of colour going forward. “As we build bridges and forge new relationships to new audience members and communities, we have an obligation to reflect the beautiful diversity of this city and the cultural richness of the country.” 

Harlem Duet is on from June 15–July 17 at the Howard Family Stage. Tickets range from $27–69 depending on seat for adults over 22 and $27–34.50 for youth 22 and under. Masks are encouraged.