Harlem Duet is aptly named. Djanet Sears's 1997 play aspires to be a tragic racial drama of nearly operatic proportions. While the play itself does not succeed completely, the new production of it at the Blue Heron Arts Center is fortunate to have, at its core, two excellent dramatic vocalists.
These would be Perri Gaffney and Gregory Simmons, playing the conflicting on-again-off-again lovers at the center of the show. As Billie and Othello (yes, that Othello, at least part of the time), they engage in a war of words and actions that is by turns searing and ecstatic. But Gaffney and Simmons dig deep into their characters, forming the bonds of a complex relationship between the two that bridges the occasional inadequacies in Spears's writings. Their characters are solidly anchored and believably portrayed for the entire performance.
Sears, who also directed, is very fortunate, because the pedigree of these characters demands actors as strong as she's found in Gaffney and Simmons. Billie is Othello's wife - his first, black wife, whom Othello is about to leave for the white Mona. Billie is outraged, seeing this action as a further extension of what she perceives as Othello's hatred of his racial heritage, so she concocts a potent revenge scheme that, as William Shakespeare laid out in his timeless tragedy, will eventually prove to be the end of them all.
But the events of Shakespeare's play would occur after Harlem Duet is concluded. As it stands, Harlem Duet eschews one consistent timeline in favor of existing simultaneously in the Harlem of 1997, 1928, and 1860 before the Emancipation Proclamation. Gaffney and Simmons play their characters during each of these periods, with occasionally minor differences - they are slaves seeking freedom in 1860, but essentially Shakespeare's characters in 1928. The scenes in the past provide color and texture, but little more - the bulk of the action occurs in contemporary Harlem.
And had Sears left it at that, Harlem Duet might have been truly gripping. The scenes in 1860 and 1928 are highly atmospheric and thematically rich, combining period dialogue with Shakespearean-type verse when necessary. But her modern dialogue is much less effective, too often over descriptive and almost florid, undermining her point rather than emphasizing it. It doesn't echo the language in Shakespeare's work; most of the time it just sounds phony coming out of the mouths of these people. There's also some plotting difficulty, with overly clunky exposition and a plot twist near the completion of Billie's revenge scenario that, albeit necessary to finish out the story, just doesn't provide the dramatic impact it should.
But the cast, working under Sears's direction, is usually able to make up for these lapses. Gaffney and Simmons are the strongest in the show, making the most of every opportunity. The other roles seem miniscule by comparison, but Walter Borden does well as Billie's father and Nyjah Moore Westbrooks as Billie's sister-in-law do very well, though Barbara Barnes Hopkins falters in her role as the landlady of the apartment Othello is about to vacate.
Thom Weaver's lighting and Astrid Janson's sets and costumes help complete the picture of two people dealing with issues of love, hate, and race over the course of their lives. Still, one can't help but shake the feeling that the two lead actors could perform their roles on a bare stage with only a ghost light and rehearsal clothes and still generate the friction and heat they do in a full production. If Harlem Duet is not as rich and full as it could be, Simmons and Gaffney provide the required depth, and then some.