Monday, April 28, 2008


Story by Ma'at Atkins PHOTOS by Stewart Goldstein of the Black Rep (

ABOVE: Harlem Duet playwright Djnaet Sears

RIGHT: Kingsley leggs and Cherita Armstrong as Billie and Othello
The Black Rep composes ‘Duet’ with clashing results

The St. Louis Black repertory Company presented its 3rd of five productions in its 31st season last Friday in the premiere of African/Canadian playwright Djnaet Sears’award winning play, “Harlem Duet” currently playing at the Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dubbed as a rhapsodic blues tragedy, DUET is an anachronistic, multi-complex tale of Othello (played by Tony Award nominated/St. Louis native alum Kingsley Leggs) and his first wife Billie (played by NYC actress Cherita Armstrong , of nine years, an African American woman whom he abandons for the white Desdemona (played by newcomer Nicole Fabbri) in three different time periods.

Directed by Black Rep Founder and Producing Director Ron Himes, this pre-quel of sorts takes place in the present day (1990s from the plays P.O.V.) as well as in jazz age 1928 and antebellum 1860, Duet is a non-linear tale of the Othello tale in regards to the tragedies that occur with love and jealousy, but with the main characters switching their ethos roles

Although this is a intellectually driven thinking person’s play, it has some simple flaws that could have been resolved.

Monica Parks as Billie's sister-in-law Amah and Armstrong

Armstrong, who gives a stellar performance as a masochistic and neurotic wife to Othello in all three periods, present day character has some problems. Her character was a graduate student and independent to a degree in regards to her dream as a career woman ( who has a chemistry lab in her kitchen like a hoodoo woman ) is lessened to more as a dependent and insanely jealous woman when her husband leaves her for a woman—a white woman. Throughout the scenes, she is moping and depressed, not getting out of bed, but it is only until the very end of Duet that we find out how enraged she is by manically creating a concoction to kill her husband.

Leggs’ Othello, although over the top, is believable in his role as a power driven professor (in modern day), a cowardly slave and a tragic minstrel performer ( in the 1860 and 1928 vignettes respectively) as one finds out his desire to fit in with the white establishment through Desdemona, his colleague in the modern scene and mistress in the other two scenes. Yet, with Leggs’ character, there is no sympathy for the character or angst from his torment that was really explored. It comes across very, shall I say it, Mister form Color Purple.

Armstrong and Dennis Lebby as Billie's father Canada in one of powerful scenes in Harlem Duet

The saving graces of the production are the supporting characters especially Linda Kennedy as Maggi the man-hungry landlord and Dennis Lebby as Canada, Billie’s genteel father (who has a very touching father-daughter with Armstrong’s character that actually stole any of the main scenes with Armstrong and Leggs!).

What helps Duet with its togetherness and harmony is the constant references to the social climate of the times throughout the play (e.g. The MLK I Have Dream and Malcolm X speeches segued in between each scene) and black pop culture references influenced by White ideology.

Parks and Linda Kennedy as sassy landlord Magi

The stage settings also help with telling story of the main stage depicting a quaint apartment building in Harlem (the backdrop of the Apollo sign was an indication of the place) with the now famous Malcolm X and MLK photo of their shaking hands hanged on the wall and the side stages of a minstrel posters and blacksmith’s smelting materials respectively.

Duet plays more of a racial thesis of black socioeconomic class in white culture in regards to sexual relationships and economic status than a play, but it is worth seeing how Sears’ changed the character traits of its main characters and compare it to the Shakespearean version.

Harlem Duet is presented by Anheuser Busch.

St. Louis Black repertory Company
thru May 18, 2008
Grandel Square Theatre
3610 Grandel Sq.
For tickets and showtimes call (314) 534-3810 or visit

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