Guest Post by Stephen Drover, Harlem Duet Production Dramaturg

Stephen is a dramaturg and director who has helped to make over 60 shows and has taught/directed at Memorial University, Douglas College and the University of British Columbia. He has an MFA in Directing from UBC and is currently pursuing an MA in Theatre Theory and Dramaturgy from the University of Ottawa where he is researching contemporary Canadian Shakespeare adaptation. He is in charge of New Works and Professional Engagement at the Arts Club Theatre.

I had an argument a few days ago with a colleague about what we believed a particular play “meant”. His perspective was that the play contained inherent truths, that the playwright’s intention was very clear, and we should take that as a benchmark of its meaning: something that was established and solid, fixed and (we might say) timeless – a word we like to give to plays, especially those approaching the honorific title of “classic”.

However, I would argue that a play’s meaning – in part – comes from what we find in it; that it is created at the moment of performance in the mind and hearts of the audience; that a play is actually a machine for generating meaning and it requires the bodily co-presence of performer and spectator to assemble the meaning. It’s important that we consider that “bodily co-presence” in the context of Harlem Duet, which is now a Canadian classic, written an eventful 25 years ago, and that the meaning is created both through the dramaturgical choices of the playwright and through the context and perspectives brought to it by the audience.

In terms of what is on the page, we might best consider the textual relationships around which Djanet Sears builds the narrative. Intertextuality is a key to interpreting meaning in a play (or any text, for that matter). This is the idea that meaning is created in a text through its relationships with other texts. Sometimes these relationships are declared or announced, and we are purposefully made aware of a play’s relationship to another, prior text. We usually call this an adaptation, with the premise that the receiver or audience member is invited to consider the “source material” when engaging with the new work. Experiencing an adaptation becomes a process of comparison: we engage with the new work while also thinking about the source – in effect, we experience two plays at once. The pleasure of experiencing an adaptation is when our attention oscillates back and forth between source material and new work, creating sparks of familiarity and recognition.

In her book Adaptation and Appropriation, Julie Sanders makes a clear distinction that adaptation tells the same story as its source material. She suggests that structure and plot are the vital ingredients in experiencing an adaptation. We might regard an adaptation, then, as repetition with variation: the same story with changes. But, as we know, Harlem Duet does not tell the same story as its declared source – Shakespeare’s Othello. The play is often described in shorthand as a sort of “adaptation of Othello”; but if we place plot as a central component, that label does not hold up. What, then, is the nature of Harlem Duet’s relationship to Othello?

In Modern Shakespeare Offshoots, Ruby Cohn outlines a category of second-degree texts called a transformation, in which Shakespeare characters are inserted into non-Shakespearean plots, either in a pre-Shakespearean past (before the events of the source plot) or a post-Shakespearean future (after the events of the source plot). The description of a pre-Shakespearean past is an appropriate category for the “prequel”, Harlem Duet. The notion of the “past”, in this case, is narrative – not chronological.

As an example, Harlem Duet is of course not set in a renaissance Venice, but in a modern-day Harlem. However, its structure, plot, and characters invite us to transpose these elements onto the idea of a prequel: things happen in this play that enable Shakespeare’s play to happen. Djanet Sears frames this prequel around the lightning rod of the handkerchief.

Noticing that harm comes to everyone who comes in contact with the handkerchief in Othello, we might suggest that, narratively speaking, Harlem Duet aims to propose an answer to the question: where did that handkerchief come from?  As in the source material, it was given to Othello by his mother (who received it from either her husband or an Egyptian charmer, depending on which of Othello’s accounts we choose to believe). Before Othello can give it to his white wife (i.e. Mona/Desdemona) it is first gifted to Billie early in their relationship. Othello eventually chooses a new partner and rejects Billie – who, driven by passion and revenge, concocts a potion, a plague, in which she soaks the handkerchief so that “Anyone who touches it – the handkerchief – will come to harm”. At the end of the play, Othello leaves Harlem and takes Mona, Chris Yago and the cursed handkerchief to Cyprus where, we infer, the action of Shakespeare’s drama will play out. The “prequel” has set the stage. And there is an ironic pleasure at seeing those dots being connected.

The play has picked up our minds and deposited them into a Shakespeare world where we are encouraged to see parallel lives between it and Othello; so we might then allow our minds to wander a bit further and perhaps start to see additional (undeclared) Shakespeare intertextual relationships. Billie’s compulsion towards revenge echoes Shylock’s brutal campaign in The Merchant of Venice. The secret yet sadly doomed love story of Him and Her in the 1860 scenes have hints of Romeo & Juliet. And Billie’s problematic father-daughter relationship with Canada might remind us of King Lear and Cordelia.

And if we were to allow our minds to wander even deeper into a classical world – if we were to give our imagination free rein – we might notice a dramaturgical relationship that the play could have with Greek tragedy. The architecture of Harlem Duet bears little resemblance to the structure of Othello, but we might consider Medea as a plot model: both Medea and Harlem Duet begin with a woman who has been betrayed by her husband; both involve the main character being forced to leave her home; both plays significantly involve a poisoned cloth prop, intended as a deadly wedding gift for the ex-husband’s new bride; and Billie (like Medea) ends her story under the watchful eye of a generous and kind father figure.

To be clear, undeclared intertextual relationships such as these do not imply authorial intent – I’m not suggesting that Djanet Sears wants us to think about these other sources and I don’t know that she considered them when she wrote the play. But that should not prevent us from discovering our own connections and, perhaps, finding them meaningful. Although we are not invited to consider Greek tragedy in the same way as we do Shakespeare’s Othello, this textual relationship can perhaps provide us with a different lens to ascribe meaning to the play – and to understand it in a new way, if we so choose.

There are many other textual relationships that Harlem Duet harnesses, in varying degrees of declaration. Its recurring dream imagery, along with the verbatim (and adapted) text from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is pretty obvious. Less explicit are the thematic echoes the play has with Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”. Canada’s beautiful speech to Billie about her childhood contains text that evokes (almost word for word) James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”. As these relationships accumulate, perhaps we can start to see intertextuality in a new light: as the whispers, echoes, and reverberations of the play’s ancestors speaking to us today. In this way, Harlem Duet is a nexus of voices, speaking from the past, informing the present, and helping to build meaning in the sacred bodily co-presence of actor and spectator.


Stephen Drover – May 2022