Harlem Duet

Play: Harlem Duet

Group: St. Louis Black Repertory Company

Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dates: Thursdays through Sundays through May 18

Tickets: From $33 to $43; contact 314-534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org

Story: Playwright Djanet Sears uses Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello as the springboard for her "prequel" story about Billie, the black first wife of the Moor. Othello is alternately a college professor at Columbia University in 1997, a classically trained actor in 1928 and a slave in 1860 plotting his way to freedom on the Underground Railroad. In each of these settings, he is alternately loving and indifferent, loyal and unfaithful to Billie, abandoning her for Desdemona, the white woman who captures his heart.

Billie cannot control her increasing rage at her situation, as her modern-day version sinks slowly into madness even as her kindly landlady Magi, cheerful sister-in-law Amah and, finally, her estranged father Canada attempt to help her as she struggles to come to terms with her ex-husband’s injustices.

Highlights: Ingeniously plotted and constructed, Sears’ two-act work is thick and full of meaty material, an intellectual exercise that is both thought-provoking and fascinating in its development. While the story weaves throughout all three times frames in non-linear fashion, it’s nonetheless highly satisfying and challenging theater of the first order.

The Black Rep production is consummately directed by artistic director Ron Himes, who keeps the focus on the action with a smooth and breezy style that cleverly bridges the show’s 20 scenes with offstage recorded speeches by the likes of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, courtesy of sound designers Charles Creath and Jennings Drew Matney. Thus, even from afar, Billie is held under the sway of a male hierarchy.

There are several tremendous performances, led by Cherita Armstrong, whose Billie is both a savvy graduate student and a wounded young woman hurt by a callous husband and earlier by her alcoholic father, a man who abandoned his children after the death of his wife.

Kingsley Leggs offers a cool and calculated Othello, shallow in pursuing his own needs to the indifference of his wife and mostly callous to the after-effects. Monica Parks is delightful as the optimistic, spirited Amah, who does her best to care for her troubled sister-in-law, as does Linda Kennedy as the earthy, wise-cracking landlady. Dennis Lebby brings quiet, understated ballast to the role of Canada, while Nicole Fabbri shows a superficial sexuality in a brief scene as the head-turner, ‘Mona.’

Other Info: Scenic designer Tim Case’s set offers a haunting, spectacular backdrop of Harlem that envelops the three-sided set, with small areas for the 1860 and 1928 scenes anchored by the larger, modern area, all handsomely lit by John Wylie. Daryl Harris brings each era to life with his judiciously selected costumes.

Despite some troubling aspects to the script, most notably the undeveloped references to Canada and Billie’s childhood, Harlem Duet is an absorbing and original take both on The Bard and on the African-American experience from a woman’s perspective.

Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.