Sunday, March 11, 2012

M Ensemble: Harlem Duet (2-1/2 reviews)

The M Ensemble opened its production of Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet on March 8, 2012.
“In Harlem Duet, history does not comfort a woman abandoned; it drives her mad. As the play opens, in Harlem in the 1990's, a young black teacher at Columbia University called Othello has just walked out on his wife, Billie, to marry a [white] colleague, Mona. This play brought a raft of literary and dramatic awards to Ms. Sears when it first appeared in Toronto.” - New York Times.
Lowell Williams directed a cast that included Christine Alexander, Ethan Henry, Yaya Browne, John Archie, and Rachel Finley.

Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
A new production of the 1997 play, which is laced with references to and influences from Othello, is the latest offering from M Ensemble at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse. Miami’s oldest black theater company has taken on a huge challenge in Harlem Duet. And the fact that much of the script’s comedy, emotional turmoil and contextual connections work as they should is due to director Lowell Williams... and one of the stronger casts M Ensemble has ever brought together.’s a pleasure watching Henry passionately delivering lines from the real Othello, and he persuasively makes the academic Othello a complicated man, a guy brimming with charm and roiling with conflict, guilt, stupidity and stubbornness. Alexander brings real passion, intelligence and a believable mental disintegration to Billie, though she really needs to work on making herself heard when she’s speaking quietly. Both Finley and Browne find the warmth and humor in their roles. And the always-impressive Archie compellingly delivers a gorgeously tender, moving speech about why the father-daughter connection, in Canada’s mind, will never be broken.

Harlem Duet does have its flaws. But judging from the knowing laughter, the whispered commentary and the moans at Othello’s more thoughtless words and deeds, this version of an old story has plenty of resonance.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
...Sears’ insightful script gets a hodgepodge treatment in M Ensemble’s production. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Lowell Williams, this edition is by turns subtle and overly-melodramatic, illuminating and opaque, clear and confusing. Some performances are deeply affecting and touching, some are just plain affected and stilted – sometimes from the same actor.
It is in their long debates about race that the two lead actors, the production and the script come alive, although that comes 40 minutes into the play. Sears’ 1997 script contains a torrent of thought-provoking observations and the sparring chemistry of Alexander and Henry elevates these scenes into the play Harlem Duet should have been all along.
The play may be called a duet, but the burden rests on Alexander’s shoulders. Her performance is also all over the landscape. She can pierce your heart at times, especially as she descends into madness; other times she is so melodramatically overwrought and mannered that she veers dangerously close to being a cartoon.

Henry is uniformly strong and brings out the best in his scene partners. But it’s still a halting, unsure acting performance compared to his deft incarnation of the tainted drug counselor in GableStage’s The Motherf**er with the Hat a few weeks ago.
Archie, one of the region’s strongest actors, turns in another fine portrait. He digs deeply into the truth of the scenes where the father, suffused with shame and guilt, tries to reconnect with his daughter. But this has to be the fourth or fifth time we’ve seen him give a nearly identical characterization of a charismatic ne’er-do-well on the brink of codger-dom. He does it so very well, but we’d like to see a director demand Archie stretch himself.
Much of Harlem Duet falls in the plus column; in fact, it ranks as one of their best productions. But it remains seriously flawed.

Chris Joseph wrote a rambling mess of an article for the Miami New Times, a mish-mosh of review and preview and interview:
...Djanet Sear's Harlem Duet weaves back and forth through time, from the plantation fields of the 1800s to the streets of Harlem in the late 1990s. Inspired by Shakespeare's Othello, the production tediously tows the line of racial identity, sexual politics, and mental illness in the black community. It's a lengthy, weighty play, and one that leaves us with no easy answers.

But thanks to a solid, impressive cast from the M Ensemble — Miami's premier African-American troupe — and the fluid direction of Lowell Williams at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, the story's complexity is made easy to grasp.
Now, that's review.  Fine.
"The play deals with relationships on a racial level," Williams says. "What Djanet Sears is saying, I think, is interracial relationships have been going on for years but no one has talked about it."
What the fuck is THAT?!?  Did the director sit next to the reviewer and whisper in his ear the entire time?  Dude, interviews with the director don't go in the review of the play.  They go in their own separate article, preferably before the review comes out.  Then the review either validates that what the director intended got through, or enumerates where it missed.

And then we get a history lesson:
Starting in the Edison Community Center and going through many incarnations, with plays performed in schools, churches, and libraries, the M Ensemble has made a mark. It was chosen to represent the Southern region of the United States at the 1972 World Festival of Black Arts in Nigeria, pioneered the nation's first drama workshop for the visually disabled, and implemented Miami-Dade's first drama program for at-risk youth at the Juvenile Detention Center.
Again, that's great information.  But it has fuck-all to do with the review of this play.  It belongs in a separate article.  At this point, we can no longer trust anything said about the play; is he relying on a viewing the production to inform the review, or what the director is telling him he should see in the play, or is he being sympathetic because of the company's history?  It's impossible to tell, so the entire review is compromised and worthless.

And he was doing so well up to this, this, this crumbling meatloaf of an essay.  Too bad, too bad, M Ensemble's work deserved a proper review, and so, too, do theatre patrons in South Florida.

The M Ensemble production of Harlem Duet plays at The Light Box at Goldman Warehouse through March 25, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment