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THE ROUNDTABLE
"Teaching Shakespeare:" The Teacher Resource Center at the CST, 8.24.2006Interview
Q&A with OVO Theatre Company (2008), July 2008Interview

Interviews with Harlem Duet stars Karen Robinson, Walter Borden and Sophia Walker
Location: Stratford, Canada. Kind: Interview.
In Association With: Stratford Festival Canada

“Djanet is unique,” said actor Karen Robinson of director-playwright Djanet Sears, “she’s not something I have encountered before or after.”

All three of the actors interviewed from Stratford’s production of Harlem Duet agreed: Sears’ play was something special and created a bond between the actors that was rarely, if ever, felt.

The current production at Stratford includes Robinson as Billie, Walter Borden as Canada and Sophia Walker as Amah among a cast of five stellar actors, and the majority have an intimate and long-standing connection with the play. Robinson first played Billie six years ago in Halifax, Nova Scotia while Borden has played the character a total of three times. Their relationships with the playwright and the characters are deep and complex, and all have their own origin stories.

Karen Robinson first heard about the play in 1996-1997 back during its first years as a production. Her first impression was that the play was something rarely seen: black people in love on stage having real conversations about everyday life. Walter Borden’s own experience was more surreal: he was in the next room during the Dora Awards where Sears won for her play. Borden heard the commotion and curiously asked what the fuss was about. The 24-year-old Sophia Walker first heard about it in 1998 and then read and studied it in college. All three actors, spanning three different periods of life, shared this thought about performing in the production: it was a unique and powerful experience playing in a production where all the actors were Black.

“You can’t live with it, it would make you crazy,” Robinson responded when asked how the play affected her personal life. “You do it, and then you leave it behind.” The emotions and experiences of Billie are too powerful to live with outside of performance. She describes Billie as being quick-witted, strong-willed, scathing and in many ways smarter than Othello. She has incredible resources to deal with the tragedy that befalls her. The story is Billie’s story, not Othello’s, despite the title of “Duet” and despite the connection with Shakespeare. It’s Billie’s story, but all kinds of people will identify with it. Robinson pointed out her own observations of audience reaction to the play. “During the intermission,” she said, “people would divide themselves along gender lines” due to the heavy animosity between Billie and Othello during the play. Somewhat unexpectedly, gay people strongly identified with the play as well.

Still, it remains a Black story -- something that Walter Borden finds a universal black North American feature. “You can go down to the States”, he claims, “and see all the differences inherent to the people living in that locale, and then suddenly, you find the similarity.” Borden himself found an eerie ghost in the play when he realized that the character he was playing was very similar to his own father, a black man from Nova Scotia. This struck him to such a degree that he found that he was donning the costume of his father, “putting it on like a glove”, and “turning his body over to be a vessel.” Borden’s luxuriant voice practically caressed the words with enjoyment as he expressed his love for the role and the play. After having performed the role over numerous years, he still enjoys it but has a deeper understanding of the character of Canada. Instead of painting Canada’s picture with the “broad brushtrokes” he used to, now he has the ability to “fill in the details.”

Another common thread throughout the play was the actors’ insistence that both Othello and Billie were sympathetic and made valid points. “It’s so difficult to take a side,” said Sophia Walker when asked about the two protagonists and their conflicting ideas about race relations, “the healthiest thing is to be aware of both and ... [stay] in the middle.” She also maintains that the primary reason for their break-up is their clash of ideologies, not his love for Mona. Walker also makes the point that, although both make valid points, the audience sympathizes more with Othello in Shakespeare’s play than in Sears’. The reason, she suggests, is because in the former Othello is the outsider and therefore the underdog. The audience then immediately sympathizes with him. In Sears’ play, however, Othello is in “his own world,” and how he acts there must be put in that context. How Othello deals with racism is important when he is among the majority, and differs from how he deals with racism when he is among the minority.

Still, Borden claims, despite themes of racism, gender relations and more, the story is basically a love story. It’s the story of Billie and Othello’s break-up and how Billie deals with that. Robinson points out that “Billie creates her own sanctuary which she has control over.” In the course of the play, we watch as Billie gradually loses control over her life, her love and even her very home. It’s still a love story, in the end, but now it’s between father and daughter. In a final gesture of love, Canada promises that “there’ll be no more leaving.” Perhaps it’s precisely this sentiment that causes so many actors from all over Canada to fall in love with Djanet Sears’ play.

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