An Interview with Djanet Sears
In March 2004, CASP Research Associate Mat Buntin conducted the following interview with Djanet Sears.
Harlem Duet has met with enormous success but has not always received an easy ride from critics. Given how your work has evolved, could you comment on the critical reception of Harlem Duet?
You know, what's interesting is that, of all of the reviews for all the productions of Harlem Duet, ninety-eight percent of all the negative criticism for Harlem Duet had nothing to do with the production, the play, the acting. I would say two to three percent of it did. A lot of it had to do with their reaction to the subject and their discomfort. Although, I do wonder if this is a defense mechanism, you know, is this a way of protecting myself by saying oh no, they're- just reacting because they feel uncomfortable dealing with race, or they're uncomfortable because there are no white people in the play.
But on closer scrutiny, I more often than not come back to the belief that the negative criticism is really about the person's discomfort with the subject matter. I remember there was one negative review of Harlem Duet where the reviewer spent a paragraph and a half talking about the white woman who didn't appear in the play, and I'm thinking, that's interesting, that's curious, since the play isn't about white people I think that the review reflected her own discomfort with seeing herself as other, or not central to this story. So it must have been hard for her to relate to the protagonist, who was Black. Until recently, a lot of Canadian plays didn't really have Black people as the central or principal characters, so I think a lot of discomfort is reflected there. Plus, there are some conscious thematic choices that I made in order to encourage people to look at their own ideas on race, to look at their own contradictions.
Harlem Duet is psychologically located in a space where issues of race and sex intersect. It's a very disquieting place for most people. But in truth, I hardly read reviews. Or I read them after the production, because I'm curious, but I try and stay away from them unless people put them in right in front of me, because I think that even though I start off as a playwright wanting to create something that is very meaningful or looks at issues that are very hard or issues that I'm concerned with, by the time opening night comes around all I want is for people to like it. [laughs] So, I stay away from reviews until after the production, so you know, they can't have a huge influence on me and I can just look at it without feeling it's personal.
A fair bit of academic writing is now out on Harlem Duet. What do you make of the academic reception of the piece, especially how it has been read in relation to racial and identity politics in Canada and in the United States?
I love it. I think it's interesting, and I see people look at things that I have never seen before and I think, oh my gosh, that's such an interesting perspective. I love the discussion because one of the things that I was always excited about during the production was the kind of discussions that would happen after the play. People would tell me stories about talking all night, arguing all night about who was right and who was wrong. People would go to the play and not have the same opinion of what the writer's intention was. I loved that. Hopefully it's a duet, and what I do is I stay that line, I stay that course right on the edge and have people have to confront and make choices about who's right, who's wrong, who's flawed. You know, I find that even when people have negative criticisms within the academic papers, I find them interesting. It's interesting because in a way, I feel the logic behind the idea is supported by concepts in the paper or essay, so I find it really interesting.
Has this discussion had any influence on your evolution as a playwright?
Not really. It might have if I was about to do another production of Harlem Duet. I might read some of the academic papers to look to see if there were some more ideas that I could use for a production, if there were some other things that I could set the production upon in terms of a director's vision, but otherwise it doesn't really influence my writing.
Would you care to comment on issues around nation identity that circulate in the play and that also seem to keep cropping up in criticism of the play? In hindsight, what do you think the play tells us about being Canadian or being American?
I probably haven't read all the criticism about the play that exists. I've read a piece by Leslie Saunders and a piece by someone else But what it says about Canadian identity ? I think one of the things that is clear to me is the role of Canada in the play. The play is set in Harlem in New York, and I remember when Winnie Mandela came just after Nelson had been released from prison, when they were still together, and she said that Harlem was the Soweto of America. And it is, it's a central location is the psyches of Black people. Harlem is almost mythological. It's this place where the best and the worst of everything Black exists or has existed. It has an extraordinary history, a rich culture and my relationship to it is borderless, very much like my relationship to Blackness. Harlem feels like another country, not exactly the USA, a country unto itself that I am part of as well.
But in the midst of the play, a character called Canada shows up. The character Canada is in a way a reflection of Canadian identity. Historically, Canada has been known as a place of hope for escaping African slaves and freed Africans in the Americas. You know, we follow the North Star to Canada. However, the character Canada is portrayed in the play as flawed. You know, Billie's father, Canada, comes to Harlem, but he's unable to change her situation, he's unable to make things better for her. However, he does remain a strong symbol of hope in the play, in terms of relationships, relationships between men and women, fathers and daughters in this particular case, but the relationship is still flawed. It's not this ideal father coming to save the day. There's even a phrase that's used in the play that is an actual common saying used by Black people in South Carolina. I've forgotten the quote exactly but it's something like I can't take it no more, I'm moving to Nova Scotia.
But the truth about Nova Scotia is far from glamourous. Canada is not Canaan land, but there is hope here. Even amidst the flaws and the criticisms I have of the country, it's the place where I choose to live; it's the place that has the most hope for me. There's a possibility of something here for me.
Could you reflect on the extent to which Shakespearean influences figure in your work as a playwright generally?
I spoke with someone about this before and while my response won't directly answer your question, I believe that Shakespeare's a god in Western literature. If you're at all interested in anything in the theatre in this society, you've come across Shakespeare. In fact, when you have to study Shakespeare in school. It's interesting to look at Shakespeare's text and the way we treat it here and then compare that to the way we treat Canadian plays. Shakespeare can write a play like Taming of the Shrew which is a story within a story, but he never returns to the first story to complete it. However, no one ever says that Shrew is a badly written play. Imagine if a Canadian playwright created something like that – it would never be performed.
So, I see Shakespeare as a jumping off point, a place to challenge either Shakespeare himself or the status quo or society, and/or an opportunity to look at things from another perspective. I remember when I was eleven seeing Othello on television in England, with Laurence Olivier in blackface, and I've said this before, but I remember that it didn't offend me, I was eleven years old. But I think that that had a huge influence on me, especially as I studied theatre later because Othello is the Black part for a Black male actor. What was interesting about seeing Laurence Olivier was that I think it made me feel a little uncomfortable. In a sense it was like a grain of sand in the belly of the oyster. It stayed there inside me and as I studied theatre, it continued to irritate me, and eventually grew into the pearl that became Harlem Duet. The central question for me was how could I begin to look at Othello from my own perspective? What do I think of him? Who would he be if he were alive today? What kind of mythic archetype has he become? Those are the questions that that piece raised in me. Shakespeare's a god in the theatre, so I'm actually quite intrigued when anybody takes him on.
Is adaptation a way of overwriting Shakespearean source texts? How do your ideological goals interact with Shakespeare's?
When you say overwriting, do you mean re-visioning it, or are you talking about going in the same direction as Shakespeare?
I think we're talking about revisioning.
I think it's totally about re-visioning it. I think looking at it from another perspective, absolutely. A perspective that I don't know Shakespeare had, partly because of his time, partly because of his race, partly because of his gender. But, you know, he was influenced by his time. Othello is for instance not really Othello's play. Othello is not Othello's story. I think that I was interested in what Othello's story really was, and it touched me that he was the principal character, one of the first Black principal characters in Western theatrical history, but he was still not the central character. Iago and Desdemona are the more central characters.
What are the problems that face a playwright who undertakes a Shakespearean adaptation?
I think that you have to be very careful because people know Shakespeare's work very well. You have to make sure that the approach that you take can be supported by the logic of your own play or the logic of Shakespeare's play. Otherwise, I believe there are no other limitations.
You mentioned before the interview that you have a student working on a Shakespearean adaptation. What advice did you give to him?
I asked him if he knew why he wanted to adapt, or base a new work on that Shakespearean character? I suggested that he go back to the character. What is the story that's not being told by Shakespeare the he can see or feel? Find that story out. That is the story you need to tell. I also told him that he also needed to consider the time period. Can it be set in a contemporary time period? Can it be set in another era? I advised him to go back to the original and look to see what questions arise.
Adaptations of Shakespeare in Canada is a flourishing genre. The CASP research team has discovered close to 450 plays that are clear adaptations dating back to pre-Confederation.
Yes it's gigantic and unexpected.
To what extent does this tradition of adapting define specifically Canadian theatrical practice (if one can even speak of such practices with any validity)?
I don't know. You know, that's a huge number. How many Canadian plays are there, and what percentage does 450 represent, and is there anything else? I mean, what data do you have about other adaptations, Shaw for instance. What about adaptations of Greek plays? Medea is adapted quite a lot. But I don't know what it means about Canadian theatre, here, apart from the obvious that we really are deeply influenced by British theatre. But the Americans do Shakespeare a lot. I wonder what percentage of Shakespeare adaptations come out of the U.S.A.?
One of the reasons that one might consider Canadian theatre to be based on Shakespearean tradition is that, certainly in the last half century, a lot of the theatrical trends have been based on trends and events from outside of Canada. I guess we're wondering to what extent does Shakespeare influence the creation of a uniquely Canadian theatrical practice?
It's hard to say. You know we come out of so many influences. Nevertheless, as Shakespeare is usually the first dramatic literature that we come into contact with, it must have a huge influence. When you were studying in school, your first play, was it a Shakespearean play?
For most of us, our first dramas are Shakespeare. Shakespeare was also the first dramatist that I came into contact with it so it's also a part of me. I remember when my nieces were very small and they would come and stay over at my home, I remember–– you know the transition of reading stories to reading literature, well, I decided I was going to read them Romeo and Juliet. The first time I read the prologue, and I know it by heart, they laughed. They just couldn't stop laughing. They thought it was the funniest thing and they'd ask me to stop and read it again. They were hearing English, but not any English they'd ever heard. They are young women now, young teenagers, who know that whole prologue by heart. So while I can challenge Shakespeare, in truth, he's really a part of me. I'm part of this culture. It's part of the foundation of my own mythology, so me challenging Shakespeare is me challenging God, in terms of literature, because it's something that exists inside of me.
Does adaptation necessarily place the playwright in a compromised position (in terms of reinforcing theatrical tradition) or does it afford opportunities to remake that tradition?
I think it absolutely affords opportunities to remake that tradition, to challenge that tradition, to say that I'm part of it, to also say that I'm very separate. If I had a story, about a Black woman and a Black man who were breaking up over three lifetimes and it ended badly that would be one thing. A story about Othello and his first wife, a Black woman, does something else to people. So, absolutely––Othello's an archetype. Mythic in proportion. Everyone knows Othello and there is a remarkable enjoyment that comes from looking at someone you think you know very well from another perspective.
What theatrical techniques do you see are most useful in the adaptation of Shakespeare genre?
I don't see that there are any set techniques. The writer should utilize all of the tools available to them, or any of the tools that work for them.
What ideological or political implications do you see in adapting Shakespeare in a Canadian context?
Well what does it mean, what does that question mean, really? There is an inference in the question that suggests that when adapting Shakespeare, we are really trying to break away from our foundational mythologies by revisioning them and in so doing we create a new covenant, a new testament. I think that's a possibility. So my response to the question, even though it's not a yes or no question, is yes, absolutely. I think it is part of an attempt to have a relationship and yet distance ourselves from our mythological traditions and our forbearers in order to be individual. To be part of it and yet not part of it at all.
It has been said that adaptation is a way of talking across cultures, across time – a way of relating to other authors and contexts intertextually – would you agree with this sense of adaptation in relation to your own work?
Yes, and I think it relates to the end of what I was saying last time to be part of whatever's foundational in your literature, in your oral literature or written literature. I think that you do want to re-envision. You do want to individuate, especially if you find yourself not in the same place as your fore bearers, you want to say, this or that does not exactly speak for me. This is what I see, I have a relationship, but the original doesn't exactly speak from my perspective. Shakespeare's not a Black woman; he could not see things from my perspective.
The title of my new play, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, it's an adaptation, or a revising, of a Shaw title. Shaw wrote a short story about a young girl in South Africa who goes into the wilderness searching for God and finds many versions of God there. It's really more of an intellectual exercise. The piece is interesting, but the title stayed with me. Shaw's story is not about the Black girl at all. So, I think that as writers we are influenced by our foundations and we ought to respond to them. In my case this is especially important given that a lot of my foundational literature is not from a Black female perspective. What does that say about what's going on inside me? So I attempt to separate, to individuate, and yet pay homage to the fact that they are influences upon me, upon my work, upon my psyche.
How far would you be prepared to go in defining what an adaptation is? To what extent in a Shakespearean adaptation does Shakespeare have to be present for it to be called Shakespearean?
It's not so black and white, but it's also not that much of a grey area. There are adaptations of Shakespeare where a writer will take the context and the characters, but there are also works that refer to Shakespeare and Shakespeare's characters, but to me that's not an adaptation, it's just cultural reference. For instance, do you have an example of what an adaptation is? Because I would say my play, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is not an adaptation of Shaw. It's a completely different story, and even the title is slightly different too. The characters are not the same, and the context is not the same. But it does make reference to Shaw, so some people might say it's a re-visioning. I think that if something's an adaptation, it's directly recognizable. If it's not recognizable, if the playwright is just making reference to, I think that's a lot different. What is your experience when reading plays for this project?
In the project, we've tried to keep it very open. One of the loosest adaptations we've included is a play called New World Brave and the only adaptation from Shakespeare is a reworking of Brave New World from The Tempest. They just switched two words around. The play is a collective creation in an aboriginal community and it has nothing to do with Shakespeare and The Tempest beyond the title, but people will recognize the title
But there's no Caliban, there's none of that story, there's no shipwreck. Is that a Shakespearean adaptation
Rather than making decisions about what is an adaptation and what is not (and obviously we've created an archive of plays we think relate to the question of adaptation in multiple ways), CASP is interested in exploring the range of adaptive practices. Adaptation, by its very nature is multiple and fluid and very hard to pin down categorically. So we're including a huge range of plays that enter into dialgoue with the genre of adaptation, from Harlem Duet to New World Brave, and letting the material speak what it will.
So Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet , I wouldn't call that an adaptation of Shakespeare, but it's definitely inspired by Shakespeare, so I'm maybe using adaptation in a much more rigid terms. To adapt Medea, to adapt something is to take something quite significant and use the context as a foundation for your own work. But you're using it to mean all references of Shakespeare in contemporary Canadian plays. With New World Brave, that's too removed from Shakespeare. What's its relationship to Brave New World?
To the Huxley text? No necessary relation. The reason that we include it is that Shakespeare has, in our opinion, such tremendous cultural capital, that by using even just the play title, that it attracts attention and adds another layer of context. (N.B. after this conversation took place CASP pursued Sears's point further––the results of that research can be read here.
So do you find that there are more plays that have a Shakespearean context in Canadian theatre than there are that don't because when I see how open that definition is, I worry that nearly every contemporary play could be seen as an adaptation.
Well, that is an extreme example. Most of the plays in our archive are much more closely related to Shakespeare in terms of the play's content.
It's interesting. It would be interesting to hear what the authors think about that and their relationship to Shakespeare, and to see whether they would be honoured or whether they would be offended. Very interesting.
Could you reflect on your own cultural background in relation to your writing and to being Canadian? You talked a little bit about your choice to live here. Does the fact that you are Canadian influence your writing? Does your own specific cultural background influence your writing? Are they the same thing?
You know, once you raise the question of what is Canadian, you open a Pandora's box. I think, for me, they're the same thing because my own definition of Canadian includes me. Apart from Aboriginal people, we come from a bunch of other places, and I have many of those traits in me. Having been born in England, my parents are from two different countries in the Caribbean, a lot of my work is about questioning home, and looking at this idea of what home means, whether it's in terms of literature or whether it's in terms of culture or cultural voice.
One of the things I like about Canada, about Toronto in particular is that I remember when I went to Germany, I had this huge realization. I just remember that everybody looked the same, well they didn't exactly look the same, I mean that Germany is a fairly heterogeneous looking country. But immediately upon returning, I was at Pearson Airport, there was a South Asian immigration officer, there was also Asian woman, Black people, a whole bunch of different looking people, and I loved seeing that – I felt right at home. I couldn't believe how much a part of my psyche that was, seeing and living with different looking people. Not people that look like me either, which was interesting because I thought, maybe I was just missing seeing Black people. While I'm sure that that was part of it, I just love being in a place with different looking people. And I like that about Toronto. I don't know if it is reflected in my work right now, but it does reflect what I see as Canadian.
There was a Jungian book that I read––it wasn't by Jung, it was a primer on Jungian psychology. In one section on dreams it suggested that seeing a Black person in a dream referred to a shadow inside of you, stuff you are trying to hide, negative stuff that you haven't come to terms with in yourself. This book wasn't talking to me. There are mainly Black people in my dreams. It was talking to non-Black people, and it was also speaking to a particular kind of non-Black person because if you are a white person with lots of Black friends and lots of friends from different cultures, seeing them in your dreams will mean something completely different than if you live in a more homogeneous world. This experience also strengthened my belief that perspective is nearly everything. I needed to write from my own perspective. And that is also Canadian. It's my wish for the theatre. I wish to see a theatre where the world is reflected -- like a garden. When we are planting our gardens we do not just plant one flower, we do not even plant flowers that are only one colour. We love to see this kind of leaf, that kind of bush, these kinds of flowers. We just love the whole range. These kinds of herbs That's what humanity is, that's what Canadians are. We all look so different and I love it.
So I'd love to see that reflected in the theatre and I think that, even though it doesn't exist in the theatre right now, I can see that it's beginning to happen. Writers of different races, genders and sexual preferences are beginning to create works for the stage from their own perspectives, just as I'm telling stories from my own perspective. I think that's Canadian.
In many ways, being Canadian becomes a way of talking about elsewhere spaces that get mapped onto Canada. What role do you think theatre plays in that mapping of local and international identities that seems to be so crucial to discussions of Canadian identity?
There's a wonderful scholar, Rinaldo Walcott [author of Black Like Who? Writing Black Canada], who wrote an article that is in the upcoming edition of Canadian Theatre Review that I am co-editing with Ric Knowles [The article is Dramatic Instabilities: Diasporic Aesthetics as a Question for and about Nation." Canadian Theatre Review 118 (Spring 2004), 99-106 ]. In the essay he talks about the African Canadian diaspora, Black people coming from different places, and he talks about how in our work there is a constant negotiation around the idea of home, about claiming home and about navigating this territory between where you've come from, and where you are.
It's interesting, early African-Canadian theatre, or work that was done in Toronto in the mid-nineteenth century, or in Montreal in the early part of the twentieth century, most of it was written by white folks. However, now we are speaking for ourselves and the voices come out of Nova Scotia – George Boyd and George Elliot Clarke – or the Caribbean Canadian community – ahdri zhina mandiela, M. Nourbese Philip, Richardo Keens-Douglas, Trey Anthony, Hector Bunyan or d'bi young and naila belvett. There are voices that reflect those Canadian born in Africa – George Seremba, and there are also first and second-generation African Canadian perspectives. Walcott observes a kind of doubleness, this multiple sense of relation to other places, relationship to United States, relationship to England. For me, a relationship to the Caribbean, and a relationship to Africa. That's part of being Canadian. We are neither this nor that, we are both. I think it's hard to form one definitive identity that is based on so many things, but I think that's the wonderful thing about us, about Canadians.
Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet is a prequel of sorts to Shakespeare's Othello. Here Othello is a college professor in late-'90s America who is in the process of leaving Billie, his African-American wife of nine years, for Mona, a white woman and fellow faculty member. The separation is not going well, not even by the nasty standards of marriage dissolution. Billie is broken emotionally by the experience, and in the tradition of grad students everywhere, she throws herself into a deep analysis of her and Othello's relationship, questioning black identity versus black perception of identity and — most devastatingly — turns her considerable intellect (and obvious bias) toward the topic of interracial marriage.
It's easy enough to write those words, because none of you will respond directly — this is a monologue. Much more difficult is a dialogue about the bugbear of interracial relationships: black man and white woman together. Americans of all races still get hinky about it, even when nothing is said on either side; even when your mother is white and your stepfather is black (as in my own experience), discussion of the ramifications of the relationship is not eagerly sought. So, you know, I have my own biases, just as Billie does. But that's the power of the theater — a public dialogue about the things we don't wish to talk about, where biases are not coddled and favor is not curried, is possible onstage. And Harlem Duet, the current Black Rep production, hits all the high points and doesn't skirt the low points of this debate. It's a tough, honest, briefly comic and occasionally painful representation of what we talk about when we talk about interracial love.
Sears' script diffuses the action through three timelines: the 1860s, 1928 and 1997. Scenic designer Tim Case's intricate set features all three periods in a nonchronological line across the stage, with the modern Harlem apartment flanked by the two earlier periods. The cramped slave quarters lurking in the periphery are a constant reminder of the past, even in the shadow of the Apollo Theater's iconic sign. Ron Himes' direction is subtle and spirited, but with ten scenes in each of the play's two acts, the changeovers are frequent and do at times disrupt the flow. Snippets of speeches by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., and, most affectingly, excerpts from the O.J. Simpson trial, play during these lulls, further evoking the difficulties of mixed marriages.
As Billie, depressed and adrift in the remnants of her life, Cherita Armstrong delivers an exemplary performance, conveying the hopelessness and blistering rage of the rejected. It is the latter that drives her to seek revenge on her wayward husband, anointing his white-and-strawberry handkerchief (fans of Shakespeare's play will recognize the importance of this) with an herbal poison.
As much as this is Billie's story, Kingsley Leggs' Othello is no one-dimensional villain abandoning his wife. Intelligent and self-aware, he's also conflicted about what he's doing to Billie; Leggs keenly portrays Othello's great doubt — does he love Mona, or does he love a white woman named Mona? — and he sounds the very darkest nooks of his own identity in a shattering confrontation with his ex-wife. "I am not my skin. My skin is not me," he tells Billie defiantly. Coming hot on the heels of his admission that even in academia he's dismissed by peers because of his race, you wonder if this is the rhetoric of Dr. King turned to Othello's own advantage, or does he really see himself this way?
People are complex and conflicted, capable of piercing insight and shocking blindness. Harlem Duet considers this, and plays out several variations of America's silent theme with bluntness and grace. It's a good show done very, very well.
Just don't be surprised if you're not certain how best to talk about it when it's over.