Vous êtes ici : Accueil > Shakespeare en deven... > N°12 - 2017 > “From Performing the...

“From Performing the ‘Sundiata Form’ to Staging the Òrìṣà” : Djanet Sears’s search for orírun in Harlem Duet

enPublié en ligne le 20 décembre 2017

Par Lekan Balogun


This paper analyses the manner in which the African-Canadian playwright, Djanet Sears, uses her play, Harlem Duet, to engage the issue of identity which I term orírun. It examines more closely the significance of the handkerchief given to Billie by Othello in the play to the quest for orírun. Although many scholars have in the past traced the link between Othello in Shakespeare’s Othello to Africa and the Egyptians, none has shown the possible knowledge of the Yoruba and their culture in the character’s creation and his famous handkerchief except Diana Adesola Mafe, who also links the same character to Sears’s Othello by examining what he shares in common with the protagonists of two Yoruba plays. Building on Mafe’s effort, I examine Harlem Duet and Sears’s theme of identity in the play through the lens of the Yoruba concept of orírun, by focusing on the story of the ill-fated marriage of the African-American couple, Billie and Othello.

1Winner of many significant accolades including four Dora Mavor Moore Awards, a Chalmers Awards, and the prestigious Canada Council for Arts Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet, both a prequel to and an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello, is a “contemporizing of the Othello story in relation to the American setting, while also showing the historical sweep of the motivations and emotions of the characters as they struggle to deal with the variables of race and sexuality in three temporal moments.”2 The play tells the story of an African-American couple, Othello and Billie, whose marriage ends before the play begins, when Othello leaves Billie for a White woman, Mona. As the play unfolds, we learn that the collapse of Billie and Othello’s relationship was, if not caused, then certainly hastened, by their individual experiences of, and reaction to, racism and sexism.

2 Harlem Duet’s production history shows that it is a success story, a “narrative of triumph,” as James McKinnon describes it. Unlike many Canadian plays, Harlem Duet has moved “from periphery to centre and small to big... as a small, independent production at a rented ‘fringe’ space, to local and national awards, publication and anthologization, and repeated productions,”3 all of which are accompanied by reviews and commentaries which generally describe the play as a major achievement.4 Critical reception of Harlem Duet have focused on the play’s counter-discursive strategy of appropriation as well as the more obvious engagement with the issues of gender and race relation, than on its significance as “a symbol of cultural achievement”5 even though this aspect of the play also stands out. According to Fischlin and Fortier, the play “is not just asking important questions about how inclusion and exclusion work for people who are part of the Black community,” through its radical approach Harlem Duet “reshapes how blackness is performed in the context of white culture [and] places black experience thoroughly at the heart of [its] visual and literary representations.”6 In short, Harlem Duet has succeeded in positioning itself uniquely, not only in its Canadian cultural context but also among audiences in the US and elsewhere.

3In the Canadian context, Leslie Sander identifies in the play the “subversive appropriation” approach by which canonical texts are appropriated to provide “an experience of how those ‘other’ in a culture might feel dislocated by the dominant culture, and wish themselves to dislocate and challenge its premises.”7 Linda Burnett considers the interface of race and gender and the politics of their representation. She argues that Sears engages the twin issues of integration and separation, which constitute the two extreme responses to racism being experienced by Blacks in most postcolonial communities and especially in Canada. She maintains that Sears shows internalised otherness in Othello who loses his own cultural identity by aspiring towards a White culture that is symbolized in the play by Mona, while Billie transitions from an intense pride in her Black culture through anger and suspicion to full-blown racism which nearly destroys her, “Othello and Billie shift from a middle ground of shared cultural pride and sense of the wrongness of discrimination to a place where one repudiates Black culture, the other White culture.”8 McKinnon reads the play’s “interrogat[ion] of its Canadian society's privileged narratives by revising, restaging, and retelling [Shakespeare] from a previously marginalized perspective,” in order to “critique or challenge the cultural capital and hierarchies that [Shakespeare] privileges ;”9 and because the play premiered at a crucial moment in the history of Black aesthetics in Canada, it has also been read as part of the “movement” towards constructing a sense of a national identity – Black identity. Fischlin contends that Harlem Duet occupies a unique place in an emergent performance history and Black theatrical aesthetics in a Canadian cultural context, and fits in as part of the multiple ways in which adaptations of Shakespeare have been deployed to create Canadian national discourses.10 In relation to its US reception, Ric Knowles writes that “the play directly represents the history of slavery and blackface minstrelsy in its crucial 1860 and 1928 actions, which are played virtually as flashbacks that [also] deeply embedded and embodied cultural memories.”11 In examining Harlem Duet within the context of a broader Black and/or postcolonial aesthetic beyond Canada and the USA however, Peter Dickinson traces its “Othello connection and other sources” through its “Canadian rendered, ethnic, racial and classed subjectivities.” He also draws attention to how the play can be read simultaneously in connection to two previous postcolonial appropriation of Shakespeare (Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest and Murray Carlin’s Not Now, Sweet Desdemona), the ideology of black subjectivity and the “experience of colonization and the expression of cultural imperialism” that was articulated by Frantz Fanon, and other theories about black conditions and identity.12

4Together with these critical reflections Harlem Duet also “stages the process of seeking and reclaiming identity as a function of the historical and cultural imperatives that have shaped Sears’s life.”13 Commentators, including Fischlin and Fortier who point out this important task of “seeking and reclaiming identity” by Sears, have neglected to explore ways in which Sears uses the play to reclaim her own Black identity, nor have they devoted attention to mapping her African identity specifically. They have paid only passing attention to the ways in which she performs that task of “race retrieval” in her one-woman show and the first by any African-Canadian woman to be published in Canada, Afrika Solo, even though Sears performs similar function “of a reinstatement of the values authentic to her [African source], modified only by the demands of a contemporary world”14 in Harlem Duet much more than what she does in Afrika Solo, by using African and, more specifically, Yoruba cultural/ritual aesthetics.

5In order to understand this crucial aspect of the play one must necessarily return to Othello and its connection to Africa. Although many scholars have in the past written about Shakespeare’s Othello and few of them have shown Othello’s link to West Africa,15 to the Arabian culture and its peoples, most notably, the Egyptians,16 none but Diana Adesola Mafe has linked the Shakespearean hero to south-western Nigeria and explicitly the Yoruba, by exploring what she calls the “African-ness” of Othello, and showing how the Shakespeare character relates to those of two Yoruba plays : Odewale, the tragic hero of Ola Rotimi’s The gods are not to blame (a Yoruba adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus) and Ojurongbe in the Yoruba opera, Oba Waja by Duro Ladipo, as well as Othello in Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet.17 Quoting Olu Obafemi, Mafe explores specifically the influence of the Yoruba worldview on the authors’ approach, including their deployment of Yoruba epistemologically-influenced “aesthetic resources such as oral performance [as well as] oral literature (poetry and folktales), music and dance.”18 She also stresses the authors’ usage of “traditional moral codes, and pre-industrial, precapitalist animist pantheistic sensibilities of pristine Yoruba culture,”19 as well as their “use of music and dance for rhythm and meaning, including a heavy reliance on improvisation and an active involvement of the audience in the process of performance.”20 Mafe contends that “Othello (who signifies African-ness in Shakespeare’s play) vehemently denies his African-ness in Sears’ text, and she concludes that the aforementioned cultural/ritual aesthetic resources that she identifies not only reflect the plays’ “African-ness”21 but what I also term their “Yoruba-ness” which is an observation that is equally true of Afrika Solo, as it is of Harlem Duet.

6Mafe, in an essay inspired by the previous and through a close reading of Shakespeare’s Othello in light of Leo Africanus’s A Geographical Historie of Africa and the Yoruba mythology, contends that the presence in the Shakespearean play of a magical object (handkerchief) and a powerful military figure, Othello, who represents both hero and destroyer that is cast in the image of the Yoruba òrìṣà, Ògún, makes it possible to view both the text and character’s connection to the Yoruba culture. She argues that while it is “unlikely that Shakespeare was aware of the specific overlap between tropes in Othello and tropes in Yoruba oral culture,” given the similarities uncovered from reading the aforementioned texts in relation to Yoruba mythology, the parallel can be made between Othello and Yoruba myth as oral traditions in “the respective uses of parables and double meanings in their traditions, the power of songs and poetry, and the fervent belief in supernatural powers [which] indicate a symmetry and perhaps even mimesis between the play and Yoruba culture” ; hence, with these systematic, even palpable, echoes, “the axis where Shakespeare’s play and Yoruba culture intersect,” the notion of intertextuality of these respective traditions is not impossible. She concludes that “by locating points where the texts and [the Yoruba] tradition speak to each other [and] by acknowledging the possibility that Othello was constructed through an awareness of Africa [and especially the Yoruba mythology] we can view [Shakespeare’s] works (and other early modern texts) as products of intertextual influences and even adaptations of global traditions.”22

7Moving outwards from Mafe and building upon her useful insight, I propose in this essay to examine Sears’s reconstruction of her own sense of self through the Yoruba concept of orírun (source), which most scholars have (mis)interpreted as identity, first explicitly expressed in Afrika Solo through the use of the West-African originated performative form she calls the “Sundiata Form,” and implied through the story of Billie and Othello in Harlem Duet. While Harlem Duet should not be reduced to a reflection of Sears’s biography or intentions, she herself explicitly draws readers’ and audiences’ attention to the real-life events she responds to in “nOTES oF a cOLOURED gIRL : 32 sHORT rEASONS wHY I wRITE fOR tHE tHEATRE” which accompany the play (as a preface to the published script, and very often in the form of program notes distributed to spectators at performances of the play) ; hence, the reception of Harlem Duet has often been informed by this knowledge. I will first explain orírun in relation to identity and then demonstrate how it is dramatized in Harlem Duet. Although Sears uses the handkerchief, music and characterization as symbolic materials to draw attention to orírun in Harlem Duet, for reasons of brevity I shall only examine the handkerchief.

8Generally speaking orírun has to do with the expression of a sense of affiliation or belonging, often referred to as identity. Identity, according to Tricia Hupton, is “an elusive and complex concept that encompasses the construction and deconstruction, negotiation and defence of self-understanding, both in terms of groups and individuals ; and it is composed of experiences and sensory reaction to the outside world, especially the way same influence how one views oneself.”23 In other word, identity deals with “who we are” and “who we are not”24 or what is also termed “a dialectics of identification and contrast.”25 Mark Currie proposes two ways of looking at orírun, essentially from the perspective of identity. According to Currie, a sense of identity can be expressed through relationships or narratives. Identity could be relational, established through relationship with other people in terms of understanding the difference between “us” and “them” and determined by our own sense of self. On the other hand, we could use stories/narratives, especially key events in our lives to organize and form a [precise] sense of ourselves. In other words, stories that we tell, and characters through which we tell those stories, actually represent who and what we think of ourselves.26 As Sears also mentions in the “Afterword” to Afrika Solo, “the longing to tell one’s story and the process of telling is symbolically a gesture of longing to recover the past in such a way that one experiences both a sense of reunion and a sense of release ;”27 thus, as outlined by Currie, Sears demonstrates the two ways of claiming identity in both Afrika Solo and Harlem Duet.

9The definitions of orírun are diverse, however. They derive from four related sources or categories of understanding including : filial ties between parents and children, or spouses ;28 relationships constructed from sharing a particular lineage ;29 social interaction or integration, or a sense of communal belonging built on blood relationship ;30 land or spatial construct by which one recalls the first category suggested by Apter ; and knowledge from totems or iconic objects/images by which an individual is able to forge a sense of their source in relation to the aforementioned categories. Two Yoruba proverbs elaborate on the dimensions of orírun that I refer to here : “Òréré ò ní jìnà kó má ní’pèkun” (No matter how far the horizon, it has an end), and “Okùn kìí gùn títí kó mã ní ‘bèrè” (No matter how long a rope, it must have started somewhere). The alternate imagery of the end (ìpèkun) and beginning (ìbèrè) in both proverbs, underlines the cultural significance of origin/source whose meaning is closer and more deeply reflective of my aim in this essay than identity ; while another proverb : “Àjò ò dá bii’lé” (There is no place like home) further underscores the value of emotional/psychological means of reunion with one’s ancestry.

10Harlem Duet implicitly engages the same issue of orírun (and sense of identity) through its dramatisation of the story of Billie and Othello’s failed marriage. In the “nOTES” we are told that “Harlem Duet [is] a rhapsodic blues tragedy [which] explores the effects of race and sex on the lives of people of African descent. It is a tale of love. A tale of Othello and his first wife, Billie.”31 Sears mentions that Harlem Duet began with her contemplation of the Shakespeare canon and the kind of mythic figure that Shakespeare’s Othello symbolises, “As a veteran theatre practitioner of African Descent, Shakespeare’s Othello had haunted me since I first was introduced to him…Othello is the first African portrayed in the annals of western literature. In an effort to exorcise this ghost, I have written Harlem Duet.”32 Sears’s view on the canon emphasizes her feelings of ostracism that her first encounter with Othello provoked, noting that although artistic values are arbitrary but their socio-political implications are not.33 Thus, for Sears, “Othello” is a name that conveys the emotion of the black experience that she narrates in the play and, in order to “dismantle” that haunting image, she turned towards her own people, her African (Yoruba) “lost” origin, and adopts a narrative technique that incorporates the combination of both the dramatic space and dramatic time that shows her implicit knowledge of the Yoruba culture and aesthetic practice.

11Sears uses the èèta motif (three separate entities regarded as one) as a narrative strategy in Harlem Duet, which makes it possible to have the same story rendered in three time-frames, linked by the same consciousness and purpose. Although several critics have commented on Sears’s innovative treatment of dramatic time and space, none has connected this dramaturgy to Yoruba aesthetic practice, as I aim to do in this essay. In fact, the cyclical and seeming indeterminate loop of the plot (similar to the narrative style in Afrika Solo) and Sears’s plural and non-linear treatment of time, space, and action in which events happen not once, but many times, moving both forward and backward in time as well, is exemplary of the key aesthetic elements of Yoruba narrative.

12In Yoruba narrative, the supreme example of which is the Ifá corpus/liturgy, temporal specificity is often de-emphasized while thematic and social relevance are given prominence. In this case, the essential characteristic and aesthetic value of the liturgy is contained in the way the audience is led outside of time referents because time, rather than being linear, operates on a cyclical frame. Soyinka also contends that life (whether real or creatively imagined) contains “within it the manifestations of the ancestral, the living and the unborn [which represent past, present and future] and all are vitally within the intimation and affectiveness of life”34 beyond mere abstract conceptualisation. Besides, Sears also mentions that she wants to write a “non-chronologically itinerant prequel”35 to Shakespeare’s Othello in order to address the issue of African-American identity. While most of the actions in Harlem Duet take place in the present, at Billie’s apartment in Harlem, locating the conflict in the couple’s relationship in the context of contemporary American racial discourse, the struggle between Billie and Othello also takes place in two other narrative threads, both explicitly tragic : in the 1860s plot, they (“HER” and “HIM”) are slaves planning to escape to Canada, but at the last minute, Othello decides not to abandon his white mistress, Miss Dacey. Later, we find him hanged. In another iteration of the story set during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, Othello (“HE”) is a minstrel actor longing to act in a Shakespeare play in the legitimate theatre. When he forsakes Billie (“SHE”) for a white woman, she slits his throat. Sears uses the speech prefixes “Her” and “Him,” and “She” and “He” to distinguish the 1860s and the 1920s versions of the characters, respectively, and to also signal that all three sets of characters are supposed to be played by the same two actors ; the play requires three other actors to play the roles of the other characters : Canada, Amah, and Magi in the play. Other key features of the work noted by critics include soundscape, symbolism and archetypal characterization, elements that work together with the presentation of action in the three timeframes to dramatize Billie and Othello’s story.

13The spirituality of the experience that we encounter in Harlem Duet from a Yoruba epistemological perspective is essentially symbolised by the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X Boulevard, location of the conflict of the Harlem scene set in the present, which is an oríta-méta (crossroads), an elaboration of the mystical aspect of the èèta motif. The deeper connotation of the èèta motif is located in the oríta-méta (crossroads), a complex term that includes the front yard of a house and/or point of extreme dilemma and confusion that are represented by both the setting of the main plot of the play and Billie’s state of mind. As Dickinson writes, “the spatial situation of Billie and Othello's apartment at the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Boulevards [is] an intersection that reflects the sense of Billie being at a crossroads, one that she in fact is unable to cross, of her being caught in a feedback loop, where her life with Othello repeats itself constantly inside her head”36 even as she tries unsuccessfully to resolve the dilemma.

14Reading Harlem Duet and the conflict between Billie and Othello through the symbolism of the oríta-méta (crossroads) shows how Sears uses Yoruba diasporic aesthetics as personified by the òrìṣà identified with the crossroads, Èṣù. According to Falola, Èṣù has always been useful across the Atlantic to talk about the creation of a new identity against the background of displacement, as s/he has also become “the signifier to talk about memory, loss, suffering, remembering, and resistance.”37 Èṣù, Falola insists, is the deity useful to “create new meanings, to resist power, to seek vengeance, to reinvent traditions, and to talk about the lost past and the meaning of the new future.”38 As we shall see shortly, Èṣù is central to the understanding of the nature and ramification of the conflict between Billie and Othello, and to understand the significance of both the epistemic value of the handkerchief to the conflict that the play dramatizes, including the mythical representations of the characters.

15Aside from the glimpses of Yoruba episteme and aesthetics in Harlem Duet that I have outlined so far, Sears also appears to have been inspired by Harlem Renaissance writers/literature in her choice of setting. As Sidney Bremer observes, the streets of Harlem Renaissance are often invoked by name and imbued with transcendent power in Harlem Renaissance literature ; and in so doing, Harlem transcended the limits of place by acquiring some sort of sensory life-force,39 beyond the confines of the narrative world, similar, also, to how the Yoruba imbue the environment with extra-sensory abilities that reflect their closeness and affinity to nature.

16The connection of the three time periods in the play to the same location suggests that Harlem is the initial notion of orírun shared by both Othello and Billie. It is “initial” because as events unfold, we realize that Othello’s concept of orírun which is based on experience and perception differs from Billie’s. Marlene Moser writes that, “Billie’s world is the world of the apartment, where their marriage was consecrated, where sex once more affirms their communion. Othello, on the other hand, is in the process of abandoning this domestic space, more and more pulled into the public world represented by Mona and her colleague.”40 Moreover, Harlem’s connection to the history of slavery and the Black Consciousness Movement foreshadows the reactions of Billie and Othello to the quest for lost origin/orírun. As Bremer argues, Harlem is “an organic place, a birthright community” and “cultural institution” which embodied the “history, images, social circumstances, and physical experience,”41 of Black people. Sears also mentions this point, albeit differently :

The play is set in Harlem in New York […]. And it is, it’s a central location in 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.42  

17In Act 1 scene four, which is set against the background of the polyrhythmic chorus of strings that accompany Martin Luther King’s speech, Billie and Othello recall some edifice of historical landmarks and the landscape of Harlem, by which they both demonstrate their psychological connection to Harlem as their place of orírun/origin :

Othello I never thought I’d miss Harlem
Billie You still think it’s a reservation ?
Othello Homeland/reservation
Billie A sea of Black faces.
Othello Africatown, USA.
Billie When we lived in the village, sometimes I’d be on the subway and I’d miss
Billie When we lived in the village, sometimes I’d be on the subway and I’d miss my step… And I’d just walk. I love seeing all these brown faces.
Othello Yes…
Billie Since they knocked down the old projects, I can see the Schomberg Museum from here. You still can’t make out Harlem Hospital. I love that I can see the Apollo from our—from my balcony.43

18Polyrhythmic music and speech by Martin Luther King in the background of the scene further emphasizes the couple’s psychological and mental attachment to Harlem, which they both aspire to connect to. In the 1928 Prologue scene, this sentiment is expressed by Billie who tells Othello that, “Harlem’s the place to be now. Everyone who’s anyone is coming here now. It’s our time. In our place.”44 In this scene, “Time” and “Place” are merged as imagery into Harlem, which corresponds to the cultural significance of orírun and stresses psychological/mental connection that is unhindered by spatial and temporal barriers. In recognizing Harlem as their orírun, Billie and Othello also implicitly assert their identity as Black people. At that moment, we are also shown that their love for each other is strengthened by the connection that they both have to Harlem. As they try to make love, Othello imagines that her body symbolizes Harlem (and other American cities) of their dream.

19In a flashback in Act 2, scene seven, set in Harlem, Othello and Billie also express the same sentiment about Harlem as “a sanctuary” and place of origin/orírun, “filled with Black doctors and dentists.” They view Harlem as a protected place where “Black boutiques, Black bookstores, Black groceries… Black banks [are] owned by Blacks from the faintest gold to the bluest bronze,”45 even as they are protected by law. This initial dream and sense of Harlem as orírun also serves to strengthen the love that they have for each other – a love that is symbolized by the strawberry-spotted handkerchief. While Harlem represents the exotic place of origin/orírun that the couple attempts to connect to psychologically, the handkerchief becomes a concrete symbol, a material object of that quest, on which they both project the dream of unalloyed love for each other, and filial relationship upon which they imagine a common source of origin. Thus, the handkerchief represents a physical object that binds the couple together and a symbol that links their past with the present.

20In the background to the 1928 scene between SHE and HE, with a cello and bass that produces a melancholic kind of music that is accompanied by Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech which he appears to sing in a slow polyrhythmic improvisational fashion, SHE recalls the genesis of the handkerchief :

Remember… Remember when you gave this to me ? Your mother’s handkerchief. There’s magic in the web of it. Little strawberries. It’s so beautiful—delicate. You kissed my fingers… and with each kiss a new promise you made… swore yourself to me… for all eternity… remember ?46

21In this speech, SHE uses the handkerchief as a source of memory by which she tries to remind HE of his orírun in terms of genealogy, that is, his mother. She then expands the scope of the handkerchief’s significance with an emotional appeal that uses the symbolism of the mother (and its connection to the handkerchief) to effectively pin that emotional and mental connection down : “You kissed my fingers…and with each kiss a new promise you made…swore yourself to me…for all eternity…remember ?”47. In another scene between HIM and HER set in 1860 Harlem, our attention is also drawn to the handkerchief. In the background a blues music blends with an American voice reading from the Declaration of Independence ; while HER admires the handkerchief, HIM uses its history, of how it came into his own possession to trace his own orírun that Billie in present day Harlem will make a recourse to later on :

Him It was my mother’s. Given her by my father… from his mother before that. When she died she gave it to me, insisting that when I found… chose… chose… chose a wife… that I gave it to her… to you [my] heart
Her Oh… It is so beautiful.
Him There’s magic in the web of it.
Her So delicate… so old.
Him A token… an antique of our ancient love48

22In the two scenes above, our attention is drawn to two of the categories of claiming orírun that I earlier outlined : filial relation (motherhood and marriage) and an iconic object which is the handkerchief. I will examine these two categories carefully in order to illuminate Othello and Billie’s individual reactions to orírun based on their emotions and experience.

23In the Yoruba culture, the mother is regarded as the “unacknowledged” primary source of a child’s orírun. She is “unacknowledged” in the sense that a child’s lineage is primarily considered from the father’s line of descent ; however, the Yoruba also recognize that the mother’s womb represents the child’s first point of contact with the earth and should have been her/his “original homeland,” the primary orírun. As an expression of that recognition of the mother’s unique place in such an identity claim, the Yoruba consider her as an òrìsà in her own right, hence the saying “òrìsà bí ìyá òsí” (No deity is comparable to the mother). Nowhere is that knowledge more clearly demonstrated than in the Yoruba rites of “ìkosè w’áyé” and “ìmòrí” (“Stepping into the World” and “Knowing the Head”), in which a child’s connection to the mother is one of the most significant requirements during the divination process and rites performed in order to identify where the child has descended : either from the father’s or mother’s lineage and/or the particular òrìsà to whom s/he should be identified.49 In the first scene where Billie traces the handkerchief’s journey through Othello’s mother and how it came to be in her own possession, it is to that epistemic knowledge that she refers. In the following scene where Othello presents a short narrative regarding the journey of the handkerchief, our attention is also drawn to the same belief, in regard to the irreplaceable connection of the mother to the child, a connection wrought from the womb, the significance of which is recalled from time to time and strengthened by the blood ties between both the mother and the child. In this case, a sense of continuity is suggested, in which case the child is said to be the ancestor of the parent (through the symbolism of the handkerchief) in a relationship that is reversed when the parents die.

24Combined, while the short narrative that both scenes present of the handkerchief draws our attention to the filial relation between Othello and his mother which constitutes his orírun, we should also have in mind that the assumption here regarding Othello’s orírun through his mother, is traceable to the Yoruba belief that mothers possess certain authority over their children, an authority that is strengthened by the “ìkúnlè abiyamo” and/or the “omú ìyá” (kneeling and breastfeeding) symbolism/position, both of which represent the psycho-social and cultural sensibilities identified with giving birth and nurturing. In this case, the potency of the authority that the handkerchief possesses derives more from her (Othello’s mother) spiritual rather than temporal position as a parent, and is equally based on “àdàbí,”50 that is, unless the child did not pass through her womb or suckle her breasts.51 In drawing attention to the handkerchief this way, Billie not only asserts its significance as the symbolism of Othello’s orírun, but also brings up the importance of motherhood, which is reinforced by the images of kneeling (ìkúnlè abiyamo) and breastfeeding (omú ìyá) respectively.

25While linking the handkerchief to motherhood Billie also draws our attention to how such a connection is extended to a spouse, hence her attempt to exploit that avenue later on as we shall see. In Act 2, scene five, that is set in an unspecified “present” in Harlem, Othello is now with Mona. But, when he comes back into Billie’s house to pack his things, both of them realize that they still have a pull on each other, and end up making love. Afterwards Billie says :

Sometimes…sometimes when we make love. Sometimes every moment lines up into one moment. And I’m holding you. And I can’t tell where I end, or you begin. I see everything. All my ancestors lined up below me…like a Makonde statue, or something. It’s like…I know. I know I’m supposed to be here. Everything is here.52

26Here, we are presented another perspective of how people “forge” a sense of origin through sexual union even as the motherhood concept is attached. The reference to the Makonde statue is relevant to this understanding. Noted for their household figures, objects and mask carvings, some of the Makondes’ most important abstract figures are the Shetani (from the Arabic word, “Shaytan” meaning “devil”) which probably must be the one that Billie refers to here. The Shetani are sculpture of various abstract, animal and anthropomorphic objects usually with a combination of attributes that are deeply rooted in certain archetypes. They are basically products of mythology and popular belief, often identified with malevolent spirits, ukunduka, for example, which is thought to feed from sexual intercourse ;53 while it is possible to view Billie’s reference to the Makonde ukunduka in relation to the sexual relation between Mona and Othello as I will argue, it also suggests another aspect that connects to the filial relation between a mother and her child that the memory of the handkerchief recalls ; that is, marriage.

27Being a matrilineal culture the Makondes’ trace their line of descent from a female ancestor, and the origin of a child through the mother’s. Although this is in contrast to the Yoruba culture, the connection could be found in both the Yoruba “ìkosè w’áyé” and “ìmòrí” rites which are points of reference that make the mother an òrìṣà as mentioned earlier, and strengthens the “àdàbí” as a tool by a parent to enforce obedience on their child(ren). In this particular context, however, Billie’s reference to Makonde (keeping in mind the aspect of sexual symbolism) stresses marriage and sexual union. Billie’s speech above shows the spiritual power in sex and how copulation functions as a way of connecting to a certain “moment” that defines one’s being, especially when she adds, “all my ancestors lined up below me… and I can’t tell where I end, or you begin.”54 In this case, our attention should be drawn to the cultural value that is attached to “àyà” (the female bosom) or, more specifically, “fífi àyà lu àyà” the euphemism for sexual intercourse which a mother uses (also under “àdàbí) to exact a will over her child(ren) through recourse to the inherent power in the sexual relationship between her and her husband (the child[ren]’s father). Billie (Her) uses a similar tactic, making a demand from Othello (Him) while drawing attention to her breasts :

Him (Pause) I want to be with you ‘till I’m too old to know. You know that.
Her [E]ven when my breasts fall to my toes ?
Him I’ll pick them up and carry them around for you.
Her And when I can’t remember my own name ?
Him I’ll call it out a thousand times a day.
Her Then I’ll think you’re me.
Him I am you.55

28In drawing attention to the “àyà” (breasts), Billie (Her) also draws from the authority that she has acquired in her relationship with Othello (Him). This is in the sense that the imagery of the breasts recalls those of Othello’s mother and its’ expected function as a psychological reconstruction of his source of origin. In the scene, it is clear that both HIM and HER understand the import of that symbolic gesture, especially when HER says, “I’ll think you’re me” and HIM responds, “I am you” to foreground the fact that, in as much as the orírun of a child could be traced to the mother through filial relation, so too could a wife’s link to the man’s (husband) source of origin, based on sexual union and much more. It is an intrinsic aspect of Yoruba culture that consequent upon marriage the couple’s identity has become shared, and connected as one – a sense of which we derive from the above conversation.

29Due to her discovery that Othello is having an affair with Mona, Billie decides to use this aspect of shared orírun between husband and wife and the viability of sexual power in order to achieve her purpose of controlling him. Although not seen but heard, Mona’s encroachment of their affair is very disturbing, at least to Billie. When Othello comes to pack his remaining possessions from Billie’s apartment, the stage direction provides a casual view of Mona’s “appearance” thus : “We see nothing of her but brief glimpses of a bare arm and a waft of light brown hair56, and through the short conversation that follows :

Othello It’s OK Mona, she’s in there. Why don’t you wait in the car.
Mona (Offstage) She’ll have to get used to me sometime.
Othello I’ll be down in a flash. It won’t take me that long (She doesn’t answer)
Hey, hey, hey !57

30By the time Mona returns in the next scene, Billie has become aware of her strong hold over Othello. He is completely rattled by Mona’s silence. At first Billie finds Othello’s frantic reaction funny especially because Mona’s voice is only heard on the intercom :

Mona (Through intercom) It’s Mona. Could I have a word with Othello.
Othello (Overlapping) Shit !
Billie One second please.
(He rushes to the intercom, while attempting to put his clothes back on […] He puts a finger over his mouth indicating to Billie to be quiet)
Othello Hey Mone… Mone, I’m not done yet. There’s more here than I imagined. Why don’t I call you when I ‘m done.
(Mona does not respond. Othello’s demeanour changes)
Othello Mona ? Mona ? I’m coming, OK ? I’ll be right… Just wait there for a second, Ok ? OK ?58

31Although Billie does not react immediately as Othello tries incoherently to explain Mona’s call, “I’ll be back in… She wants to help… help pack… I mean… I,” even as he struggles to button his shirt at the same time. As the stage direction tells us, “Billie does not move.”59 The silences here in this scene, Billie’s and Mona’s, say a lot about the direction of the story from that point onward. As McKinnon rightly observes, apart from Othello’s reaction to Mona’s silence confirming her power over him, irrevocably shattering the renewed rapport between Othello and Billie and ending any hope of reconciliation, her absence is even paradoxically more powerful, “threatening [Billie’s] presence” and making us to “imagine the worst ;”60 the worst, being what Billie resorts to – using the knowledge of Othello’s orírun to cast a spell on the handkerchief in order to get him back from Mona (and possibly punish anyone who touches the handkerchief).

32At this point in the play, we begin to understand the metaphysical aspect of the conflict between Billie and Othello, specifically in respect of Èṣù and her/his value to the understanding of “the fragility of relationships… and understanding of interpersonal conflicts and relations.”61 We also begin to see two different attitudes to the same notion of orírun ; namely Othello’s knowledge of origin based on where he now belongs and which influences his own concept of identity but is unacceptable to Billie due to his unfaithfulness, and Billie’s own notion of identity that is subsumed under emotional reaction that leads to vengeance ; in effect, the two expression of self-knowledge is driven by the sense of “who we are” and “who we are not.” As I mentioned earlier, one can form a sense of identity through relationship with other people even in a new/foreign land. Yoruba understanding regarding connecting to one’s orírun in this regard is explained with the saying “Ibi orí dáni sí làá gbé” that is, wherever fate and circumstance determined is home/origin. While the Yoruba notion of “Ibi orí dáni sí làá gbé” promotes the sense of origin in one’s new abode irrespective of spatial and temporal dislocation from one’s original homeland, it also takes into consideration the essentiality of harmonious co-existence. The significance of this belief is underlined by the Yoruba sense of a common humanity, captured by the saying “Ayé kan ló wà” (One humanity exists), which underlines the notion of locating home wherever one resides, either by birth, sojourn, marriage or association of any sort so long as the environment is characterized by harmony.

33Othello’s action should be understood from this cultural perspective of “Ibi orí dáni sí làá gbé,” which could be drawn from his remark, “My culture is Wordsworth, Shaw, Leave it to Beaver, Dirty Harry,”62 an indication of his idea of origin being shaped by both a historical and contemporary worldview that privileges diversity rather than a monolithic culture that Harlem has come to represent for him : a source of origin that refuses to let go of its past history of violence, bitterness, hatred and uncertainty that Billie abhors in her heart. In fact, in this same scene, Othello also expresses his desire for Harlem, his original homeland, as much as Billie, “that distant thing I know nothing of, but yearn to hold for my very own.”63 But he also reminds her that, “People change… That’s just human nature. Our experiences, our knowledge transforms us.”64 He realizes from experience that Harlem, with its history of slavery and racial struggles, will remain a dreamland ; an exotic place, an ideal place for both Billie and himself, of origin only in their imagination, “We struttin’ around professing some imaginary connection for a land we don’t know. Never seen. Never gonna see.”65 In the same scene, set in Harlem today, with Malcolm X’s speech in the background, he asks Billie, “What difference does colour make ?” and tells her that “You are the problem if you don’t see beyond the colour of [your] skin.”66 Othello realizes that people around them have become part of their new community, hence the need to establish a “new” origin in the midst of the people and to enter into new relationship which affect them and they affect in turn, but devoid of hatred based on the notion of (racial) difference.

34Othello thus demonstrates an implicit Èṣù consciousness with regards to race relation. As Falola observes, “the individuals that negotiate with the deity have to deal with confusion, changing definitions of self and society, unpredictability, and cultures that undergo changes and mutations.” Othello realizes that his life can only have meaning by his coming to terms with the present reality, which includes dealing with discrimination that he experiences from his colleagues in the office on a daily basis for, indeed, “the journey of the displaced would be traumatic, but in [Èṣù] are answers for remembering and recreating in order to survive, succeed and reproduce,”67 rather than continue to hold onto a particular idea of home that exists only in the imagination.

35Given that Othello’s recourse to this cultural value, this Èṣù redemptive capacity, is tainted by infidelity, Billie interprets his stand differently and calls him “A Black man afflicted with Negrophobia” ; a “Corporeal malediction”, and “a crumbled racial epidermal schema[…] causing predilections to coitus denegrification.”68 Brown-Guillory contends that Othello is misguided and delusional69while Kidnie insists that “Othello is selling out Black culture and heritage in a misguided effort to gain white respect.”70 Although the type of racism that Billie experiences is not the same as Othello’s, he brings to his own an understanding that allows him to critically assess situation especially at his work place where he has to prove his worth all the time, “any error […] only goes to prove them [his white colleagues’] right.”71 Yet, he decides to relate with the same people without the kind of hatred that Billie abhors in her mind, “[i]njustice against Blacks can’t be cured by injustice against Whites” (53), whereas Billie finds Othello’s explanation untenable, “Progress is going to White schools… proving we’re as good as Whites… like some holy grail… all that we’re taught in those White schools. All that is in us. Our success in Whiteness. We religiously seek to have what they have. Access to the White man’s world. The White man’s job.”72 By the time Mona eventually “shows” up and shatters every possibility of mending the cracks on the walls of their marriage, and with Othello’s insistence that, “Things change, Billie. I am not my skin. My skin is not me,”73 as a final note of registering his disposition towards her and the new society, Billie resorts to the same handkerchief by which she recalls Othello’s orírun through his mother, and projects her own connection to the same based on their marriage.

36Billie’s frustration should be understood given her commitment to the marriage and investment in Othello’s life. She educated him with the inheritance from her mother’s wealth and suffered two miscarriages for him. Having been disappointed in the end, she resorts to herbalism and a vengeful use of her àjé which she projects into the handkerchief as a final attempt to keep their marriage and make him respond to her own sense of self.74 According to Teresa Washington, àjé is the “biological, physical, and spiritual force of creativity, social and political enforcement” ; “the spiritual vision, divine authority, power of the word, and àṣe, the power to bring desires and ideas into being.”75 The stage direction reads that the scene opens with Billie :

[…] by the chemical factory at the table. The book of Egyptian Alchemy sits open upon it. Something is boiling in the flask and steam is coming out of the condenser. With rubber gloved hands she adds several drops of a violet liquid into the flask. She picks up a large white handkerchief with pretty red strawberries embroidered on it.76

37Billie, having combined the required ingredients which she puts on fire to boil, chants an incantation, a sort of ìtàn (story/narrative/history) that traces the “journeys” of the handkerchief, spanning the four generations before Othello was born :

[…] Once you gave me a handkerchief. An heirloom. This handkerchief, your mother’s… given by your father. From his mother before that. So far back… And now… then… to me. It is fixed in the emotions of all your ancestors. The one who laid the foundation for the road in Herndon, Virginia, and was lashed for laziness as he stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow with this kerchief. Or, your great great grandmother, who covered her face with it, and then covered it with her hands as she rocked and silently wailed, when told that her girl child, barely thirteen, would be sent ‘cross the state for breeding purposes. Or the one who leapt for joy on hearing of the Emancipation Proclamation… And more… so much more.77

38In the first case, in order to draw from the complex, elemental and profound mystical energy that àjé represents, Billie uses the combination of the mystical properties of the white handkerchief and the red of the strawberry images woven into it : white in this case represents spiritual transcendence and red, often symbolizing blood, represents the fluid that holds and releases àṣe ; the power to make things happen.78 Billie then traces the origin of the handkerchief back to Othello’s mother by appealing to the biological act of giving birth on the one hand, and the entire concept of creating on the other. Her action is meant to achieve an effective link to Othello’s orírun, which she now shares by virtue of marriage to him and the sexual relationship by which his blood has mingled with hers. While this chant centres specifically on Othello’s maternal line of descent, Sears invokes the òrìsà, Oya, in order to balance the cosmic forces involved, “My sable warrior… fight with me. I would fight with you… suffer with you…”79 and to seal the process which constitutes a manifestation of àjé.80

39There is however a fundamental problem with this cosmic process : Billie’s role here is twisted with Oya’s, the òrìsà with whom Èṣù has a correspondence, for while Èṣù tampers with the fragility of relationships, only Oya can use her feminine power to restore order ; while Èṣù as the controller of àṣe (the power in operation) does not seek “to destroy the bad and malevolent so that only the good and benevolent remains, Èṣù sees the positive in both forces,”81 a crucial point that Billie does not take into account because, emotionally traumatized, she just wants to destroy Mona (and possibly Othello). Elsewhere I argued that a character who responds as Billie, and draws from the power of Oya this way, is possibly both emotionally and psychologically disturbed – a disturbance that propels virulent anger and sudden change as the deity’s volcanic temperament.82 While decisions/actions taken under such a circumstance negates Èṣù’s insistence that an attitude of mind must be cultivated in order to create a praxis of operation in which violent forces that will disrupt personal and social harmony are not instigated,83 it is also apparent that Billie does not take such caution into consideration.

40Billie’s manifestation of àjé derives from the power to enact spiritual communication through Òrò (Power of words), and ofò àṣe (the power to pray effectively), àyájó (power of incantations), and àáṣán (the power to curse and drive insane).84 We are also informed through the stage direction that, “The contents of the flask have been transformed from violet to clear. BILLIE places the handkerchief onto a large tray. Then with tongs, she takes the hot flask and pours the contents over the handkerchief. She retrieves a vial from the table, opens it.”85 In a Yoruba context, the efficacy of Billie’s projection of the àjé is possible through her effective use of a form of Òrò called gbólóhùn (incantations) which, in this particular case, is the ìtàn of the handkerchief and the invocation of the òrìsà, Oya, by drawing from her power in order to effect violent change. These types of Òrò and gbólóhùn, include ofò/ògèdè and àwúre, which either work in favour or against the individual who uses them, depending on their intended purpose. While ofò/ògèdè refers to powerful poetic genre considered intensely efficacious and downright dangerous, and invoked by people (usually medicine-men and those versed in the esoteric verbal art) in order to realign the balance of spiritual forces so that they can work in their favour (either for good or bad depending on intention), àwúre is usually derived from the Ifá corpus, and are rendered in order to bring about blessing and good fortune.86 The former is often invoked basically to instil fear and engender compliance to set conditions, while the latter is driven by contrary emotions and intentions. In this case, we can say that Billie draws from ofò/ògèdè which she strengthens by aligning her own consciousness with the cosmic through invoking the power of Oya, the “sable warrior,” the female òrìsà noted for virulent anger and turbulence ; and satisfied that the potion is ready, she tells us “Anyone who touches it—the handkerchief, will come to harm”87 ; “anyone” as we imagine would be Mona, or even Othello.

41As we are also informed, Billie’s is not the first time that such a mystical ability will be demonstrated by the characters in the play. In a scene set in present-day Harlem, Billie’s friend, Amah informs Magi, Billie’s landlady, of trying such a spell on her lover, Andrew, “Once I buried his socks under the blackberry bush by the front door. Sure enough, he always finds his way back home.”88 Amah tries this spell after a Jamaican lady told her that she also rinsed her underwear and used the water to prepare a meal for her lover, with the hope that their love would last for eternity. But from indications, the spell does not seem to have its desired effect nor does Billie’s, since it causes her madness and Othello’s own death by her hand.

42By dabbling into herbalism without adequate knowledge of its deployment (although Magi tries to warn her), Billie violates a major rule guiding the use of the àjé. Billie’s attempt fails because she does not consider the rules and principles that guide the use of such an enormous power. While àjé/Àjé, as both power and the wielder of the power, possesses the “cosmic/elemental force” to bring desires and ideas into being, the same are also subjected to strict rules of usage that guard against abuse or even the deployment of that awesome/vicious energy under an intensely emotional condition. We come to understand this important aspect of herbalism at this point in Billie’s conversation with Magi who advises her to be careful of her plans :

43Billie Can you keep a secret ?
Magi No, but that’s never stopped you before.

Billie  Then sorry…
Magi OK, OK. I promise.
Billie I am about to plunge into a very dangerous waters. Give me your word.
Magi You’re not going to do something stupid, now.
Billie Your word ?
Magi Yeh, OK.
Billie I’ve drawn a line.
Magi : A line. A line about what ?
Billie I’m returning the handkerchief—the one his mother gave him. The one he gave to me when we first agreed to be together…
Magi I don’t understand.
Billie I’ve concocted something… A portion… A plague of sorts… I’ve soaked the handkerchief… Soaked it in certain tinctures… Anyone who touches it—the handkerchief, will come to harm.
Magi Now, that is not a line, Billie that is a trench.89

44In fact, Billie is much consumed by the thought of what she plans to do to the extent that she does not recognize Othello’s voice on the phone when he calls at that moment. She initially thinks it is Jenny calling. When she realizes it is Othello, her response is incoherent, agitated and full of excuses. Realizing that Billie is consumed with rage by her actions, Magi attempts to dissuade her from this line of action :

Is everything about White people with you ? Is every living moment of your life eaten up with thinking about them ? Do you know where you are ? Do you know who you are anymore ? What about right and wrong. Racism is a disease my friend, and your test just came back positive. You’re so busy reacting, you don’t even know yourself.90

45Billie fails to learn from her landlord, Magi, who questions the efficacy of using such a power to avenge her (Billie)’s disappointment by Othello, “Billie, if this kind of stuff truly worked, Africans wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now. Imagine all them slaves working magic on their masters… if it truly worked, I’d be married to a nice man, with three little ones by now.”91 In fact, Magi’s story serves as an alternative to Billie’s, although along with Amah and later on Canada (Billie’s estranged father), Magi only appears in the present-day plot.

46In response to Canada’s question about whether she has lived all her life in the same house she now owns, Magi tells him a story that goes back into about four generations, similar to tracing her own orírun. Magi inherited the house from its original owner, a White man, who apparently fathered children with her great grandmother, meaning that even while she believes herself to be Black, she might have remotely descended from a White father, yet her claim over the building goes back in the direction of motherhood, through a black woman. There is also a suggestion of a budding romance between Magi and Canada (and possibly the occurrence of “fífi àyà lu àyà” when Canada tells Magi :

Canada You sure know the way to a man’s heart.
Magi Haven’t had any luck so far.
Canada Yet (There is an awkward silence between them, after which they both start speaking at once)92

47Although Canada’s return is timely, Billie rebuffs him. Having been unfaithful to her mother, not to mention his drinking problem, Canada’s arrival is less than welcomed. Billie resentfully recalls how she and her brother Andrew were treated after their mother’s death, when their father “hauled [them] all the way […] from Bronx.”93 However, from the audience’s perspective, Billie would be well-advised to heed Canada’s story about the man who died not because he was shot by an archer but because he allowed the wound to fester without attending to it on time.94 Although Billie does not listen, Canada’s story is an example of such ìtàn that “gain their authority from the distillation of past experience and entails connecting elements of myth, history and events of the past through àróbá (oral transmission) that is retold over and again.”95 Such ìtàn, in the manner of Harlem Duet,exemplify how people connect to their orírun through narrative.

48The significance of Canada’s story, that people can actually learn from the past and prevent it from destroying their present and future by leaving that past “in the past” where it belongs, is lost on Billie who is unable to look beyond Othello’s infidelity and the pain that she has suffered through her devotion to him. In other words, Canada’s story, rendered in the form of òwe onítàn (proverbial story), stresses the danger in perpetuating the notion of difference which was wrecking Billie from deep inside of her at that crucial moment in the play ; as Kaplan observes, Billie is “defined by the continuity of experience ; [that] she is trapped in history just as history is trapped in her.”96 While Burnett maintains that in Harlem Duet, “Sears explores two extreme responses to the racism faced in North American society – integration and separation – and finds each lacking,”97 I think that unlike Billie, Othello demonstrates integration, or the willingness to integrate into the society, by utilizing the knowledge from a Yoruba cultural understanding that locates orírun/origin where one is born. Perhaps that is why Sears insists that the play is Billie’s story and not Othello’s. Billie realizes this too late both in the aspect of dealing with Othello and how important her father’s return would turn out to be, after the potion she puts on the handkerchief to punish Mona (or Othello) backfires.

49Because of the way Billie uses the handkerchief and its disastrous result, scholars such as Dickinson, Tompkins and many others have read Harlem Duet as a tragedy, but, the play is not necessarily a tragic one. I agree with Kidnie on this point, when she insists that, in spite of the outcome of Billie’s emotional and psychological breakdown resulting from Othello’s betrayal of her love and the handkerchief’s failure to serve her desired purpose, Harlem Duet should also be viewed from the perspective of how “it turns away from death towards hope and creative inspiration, particularly as embodied by the children.”98 Kidnie refers specifically to Jenny who, though never present physically on the stage like Mona, also wants to support and help her aunt Billie overcome the throes of loss she has suffered by sending her, her portrait. More so, Canada’s return, and apparent reformation, and his decision to nurture his daughter back to health, suggests an optimistic future – albeit not for Othello, and perhaps not soon for Billie. But hope is hinted at when Canada, in response to Amah’s comment about missing him when he returns to Nova Scotia says, “Oh, I don’t think I’m going anywhere just yet […] least if I can help it. Way too much leaving gone on for more than one lifetime already.”99 While this statement is reassuring, it conveniently ties up with Stuart Hall’s remark that “what is at issue [in Harlem Duet] is the capacity for self-recognition,”100 which I believe that Othello demonstrates but Billie does not even as it underlines both the cultural and political significance of locating orirun/origin, and/or one’s identity at every moment in time, where fate and circumstance have called home irrespective of spatial and temporal distance to one’s original ancestral place of birth.

50Following the insight of Mafe on the knowledge and influence of Yoruba culture and aesthetics on Shakespeare’s Othello and Sears’s Harlem Duet, I examined in this essay the issue of (Black) identity in Djanet Sears’s award-winning play, Harlem Duet through the Yoruba concept of orírun. In “nOTES” Sears mentions that “it is imperative that our writing begin to recreate our histories and our myths, as well as to integrate the most painful of our experiences.”101 Echoing Currie, I argued that with her narratives : Afrika Solo and, more importantly, Harlem Duet, Sears has shown example of how people claim their identity in a foreign land and reconnect to their place of origin emotionally, psychologically and in an aesthetic/performative way. Sears herself has shown an example of how to embrace one’s orírun in a new environment in the way that I have suggested. She tells Knowles in an interview, “Before Harlem Duet, Canadian Stage had never produced a work by an author of [Black] African descent. And the problem with Canadian Stage is that it’s called Canadian Stage, so it represents Canada, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m Canadian, so it must represent me.’”102


AKINJOGBIN, Adeagbo, Milestones and Concepts in Yoruba History and Culture : A Key to understanding Yoruba History, Lagos, Olu-Akin Publishers, 2002.

APTER, Andrew, “Yoruba Ethnogenesis from Within,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 55, 2, 2013, p. 356-387.

BADAWI, Muhammad Mustafa, “Shakespeare and the Arabs,” Cairo Studies in English, 1963/66, p.186-196.

BALOGUN, Lekan, “Ajubaba : Shakespeare and Yoruba Goddess,” International Journal of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies, vol. 1, n° 3, 2013, p. 18-25.

BARBER, Karin, “Literature in Yoruba : poetry and prose ; travelling theatre and modern drama,” The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, vol. 1, eds., Irele F. Abiola and Simon Gikandi, Oxford, OUP, 2004, p. 357-378.

BELL, Hilary, “The Landscape Remembers You : A Reflection by Hilary Bell from an Interview with Naomi Wallace,” Trans-Global Readings : Crossing Theatrical Boundaries, ed. Carida Svich, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004, p. 111-115.

BRENER, Sidney, “Home in Harlem, New York : Lessons from the Harlem Renaissance Writers,” PMLA, vol. 105, n° 1, 1990, p. 47-56.

BROWN-GUILLORY, Elizabeth, “Place and Displacement in Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet and The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God,” in Middle Passages and the Healing Place of History : Migration and Identity in Black Women’s Literature, ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Columbus (Ohio), The Ohio State University Press, 2006, p. 155-170.

BUNTIN, Mat, “An Interview with Djanet Sears,” Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project (CASP), 3 March 2017, www.canadianshakespeares.ca/

BURNETT, Linda, “‘Redescribing a World’ : Towards a Theory of Shakespearean Adaptation in Canada” CTR, 2002, p. 5-9.

COMAROFF, L. John, “The End of Anthropology, Again : On the Future of an In/Discipline,” American Anthropologist, 112, 4, 2010, p. 524-338.

CURRIE, Mark, “The Manufacture of Identities,” Postmodern Narrative Theory, ed. Mark Currie, Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1998, p. 17-32.

DICKINSON, Peter, “Duets, Duologues, and Black Diasporic Theatre : Djanet Sears, William Shakespeare, and Others,” Modern Drama, 45, 2, 2002, p. 188-208.

DREWAL, Margaret Thompson, Yoruba Ritual : Performers, Play, Agency, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992.

FALOLA, Toyin, “Esu : The God without Boundaries,” Esu : Yoruba God, Power, and the Imaginative Frontiers, ed. Toyin Falola, Durham NC, Carolina Academic Press, 2013, p. 3-33.

FISCHLIN, Daniel, “Nation and/as Adaptation : Shakespeare, Canada, and Authenticity,” in Shakespeare in Canada : A World Elsewhere ? eds. Diana Brydon and Irene Makaryk, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. 313-314.

FISCHLIN, Daniel and Mark Fortier (eds), Adaptations of Shakespeare : A critical anthology of plays from the seventeenth century to the present, London, Routledge, 2000.

HALL, Stuart, “Introduction : Who Needs ‘Identity’ ?” Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, London, SAGE Publications Ltd, 1996, p. 1-17.

HOPTON, Tricia, Realizing the flexible Imaginary : Canadian Identity in Contemporary Theatre, Vancouver (BC), University of British Columbia, 2005.

HSU, Elisabeth and Chris Lowe, Wind, Life, Health : An Anthropological and Historical Perspective, Hoboken (New Jersey), Wiley-Blackwell, 2008.

IROBI, Esiaba, “The Theory of Ase : The Persistence of African Performance Aesthetics in the North American Diaspora—August Wilson, Ntozake Shange & Djanet Sears,” in African Theatres : Diasporas, eds. Matzke, Christine and Osita Okagbue, James Currey, Oxford, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p. 15-25.

JEYIFO, Biodun, The Truthful Lie : Essays in the Sociology of African Drama, London, New Beacon Books Ltd., 1985.

ELDRED Jones, Othello’s Countrymen : The African in English Renaissance Drama, Oxford, OUP, 1965.

KAPLAN, Jon, “Alison Sealy-Smith Bursts Bard’s Bubble,” Toronto, Now Magazine, 1997.

KIDNIE, Margaret Jane, “Seeing Beyond Tragedy in Harlem Duet,Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 36, 2, 2001, p. 29-44.

KINGDON, Zachary, A Host of Devils : The History and Context of the Making of Makonde Spirit Sculpture, London, Routledge, 2002.

KNOWLES, Ric, “The Nike Method : A Wide-Ranging Conversation between Djanet Sears and Alison Sealy Smith,” Canadian Theatre Review, 1998, p. 24-30.

KNOWLES, Ric, “Othello in Three Places,” Shakespeare and Canada : Essays on Production, Translation, and Adaptation, Brussels, Peter Lang, 2004, p. 137-164.

MAFE, Diana Adesola, “Race, Rhyme, and Ritual : Intertextual Tropes of Africa(ness) in 20th Century Yoruba Plays and Contemporary Adaptations of Othello,” MA Thesis, Canada, University of Guelph, 2003.

MAFE, Diana, “‘From Ogun to Othello’ : (Re) Acquainting Yoruba Myth and Shakespeare’s Moor,” Research in African Literatures, vol. 35, n° 3, 2004, p. 46-61.

MATYR, Peter, Decades of the New World, Trans. Eden Richard and William Powell, London, British Library, 1555.

MCKINNON, James,“The Dramaturgy of Appropriation : How Canadian Playwrights Use and Abuse Shakespeare and Checkov,” PhD dissertation,University of Toronto, 2010.

MCKINNON, James, “‘Playing the Race Bard’ : How Shakespeare and Harlem Duet Sold Out at the 2006 Stratford Shakespeare Festival,” in Outerspeares : Shakespeare, Intermedia, and the Limits of Adaptation, ed. Daniel Fischlin, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014, p. 290-318.

MOSER, Marlene, “From Performing Wholeness to Providing Choices : Situated Knowledges in Afrika Solo and Harlem Duet,” Theatre Research in Canada/Recherches théãtrales au Canada, vol. 29, n° 2, 2008, p. 1-9.

OBAFEMI, Olu, Contemporary Nigerian Theatre : Cultural Heritage and Social Vision, Bayreuth, Bayreuth University, 1996.

OLAJUBU, Oyeronke, Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere, Albany (NY), State University of New York Press, 2003.

OPEFEYITIMI, Ayo, Women in Yoruba Culture : A Dozen of Academic Articles, Ibadan, Penthouse Publications, 2009.

SEARS, Djanet, “Afterwords,” Afrika Solo, Toronto, Sister Vision, 1990.

SEARS, Djanet, Harlem Duet, Toronto, Scirocco Drama, 2002.

SEARS, Djanet, Testifyin’ : Contemporary African Canadian Drama, vol. 2., Toronto, Playwrights Canada Press, 2003.

SOYINKA, Wole, Myth, Literature and the African World, Cambridge, CUP, 1976.

WASHINGTON, Teresa N., Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts : Manifestations of Aje in Africana Literatures, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2005.


1  Hilary Bell, “The Landscape Remembers You: A Reflection by Hilary Bell from an Interview with Naomi Wallace,” in Trans-Global Readings: Crossing Theatrical Boundaries, ed, Carida Svich, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004, p. 111.

2  Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, Adaptations of Shakespeare: A critical anthology of plays from the seventeenth century to the present, USA and Canada, Rouledge, 2000, p. 287.

3  James McKinnon, “The Dramaturgy of Appropriation: How Canadian Playwrights Use and Abuse Shakespeare and Checkov,” University of Toronto, Canada, PhD dissertation, 2010, p. 137.

4  Harlem Duet has had many high-profile productions since its initial workshop at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York, to its Canada premier at Tarragon Theatre’s Extra Space, and subsequent staging at the Canadian Stage Theatre by Nightwood Theatre in 1997; Halifax, 2000; New York, 2002; Stratford Festival, 2006, and St. Louis’s Black Repertory Theatre, 2008. See for example: McKinnon, “‘Playing the Race Bard’: How Shakespeare and Harlem Duet Sold Out at the 2006 Stratford Shakespeare Festival” in Outerspeares: Shakespeare, Intermedia, and the Limits of Adaptation, ed. Daniel Fischlin, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2014, p. 290-318.

5  James McKinnon, PhD dissertation cit., p. 140.

6  Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, op. cit., p. 286.

7  Leslie Sander, “Othello Deconstructed: Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet, in Testifyin: Contemporary African Canadian Drama, vol.1, ed. Djanet Sears, Toronto, Playwrights Canada Press, 2000, p. 558.

8  Linda Burnett, “‘Redescribing a World’: Towards a Theory of Shakespearean Adaptation in Canada,” CTR, 2002, p. 6.

9  James McKinnon, PhD dissertation cit., p. 2-4.

10  Daniel Fischlin, “Nation and/as Adaptation: Shakespeare, Canada, and Authenticity,” in Shakespeare in Canada: A World Elsewhere? eds. Diana Brydon and Irene Makaryk, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2002, p. 313-314.

11  Ric Knowles, Theatre and Multiculturalism, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p. 34.

12  Peter Dickinson, “Duets, Duologues, and Black Diasporic Theatre: Djanet Sears, William Shakespeare, and Others,” Modern Drama, 45, 2,2002, p. 191-199.

13  Daniel Fischlin and Mark Fortier, Adaptations of Shakespeare: A critical anthology of plays from the seventeenth century to the present, USA and Canada, Routledge, 2000, p. 285.

14  Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World, Cambridge, CUP, 1976, p. x.

15  See Peter Martyr, Decades of the New World, 1555 AD, Trans. Eden Richard and William Powell, London, A. Constable and Company, 1895, Original from the University of California; Eldred Jones, Othello’s Countrymen: The African in English Renaissance Drama, Oxford, OUP, 1965.

16  Muhammad Mustafa Badawi, “Shakespeare and the Arabs,” Cairo Studies in English, 1963/66, p.186-196; Ferial J. Ghazoul, “The Arabization of Othello,” Comparative Literature, vol. 50, n° 1, 1998, p. 1-11.

17  Similarly, the Nigerian (self-proclaimed Biafran) playwright, Esiaba Irobi also explored the influence of Yoruba epistemology and its aesthetic principles on the works of a number of North-American writers of African descent. Using the concept of àṣe, the Yoruba word for the force and/or power by which things come into existence, and are taken charge of, Irobi argues that these dramatists draw from the reservoir of Yoruba sacred tradition and its aesthetics whose origin predates the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and colonialism in order to articulate the experience and complexity of their location in the Yoruba diaspora. See: Esiaba Irobi, “The Theory of Ase: The Persistence of African Performance Aesthetics in the North-American Diaspora. August Wilson, Ntozake Shange & Djanet Sears,” in African Theatres: Diaspora, eds., Christine Matzke and Osita Okagbue, James Currey, Suffolk, Boydell & Brewer, 2009, p.15-25.

18  Olu Obafemi, Contemporary Nigerian Theatre: Cultural Heritage and Social Vision, Bayreuth, Bayreuth University, 1996, p. 14.

19  Biodun Jeyifo, The Truthful Lies: Essays in a Sociology of African Drama, London, New Beacon Books Ltd, 1985, p. 115.

20  Olu Obafemi, op. cit., p.16.

21  Diana Adesola Mafe, “Race, Rhyme, and Ritual: Intertextual Tropes of Africa(ness) in 20th Century Yoruba Plays and Contemporary Adaptations of Othello,” MA Thesis, Canada, University of Guelph, 2003, p. 65.

22  Diana Adesola Mafe, “‘From Ogun to Othello’: (Re) Acquainting Yoruba Myth and Shakespeare’s Moor,” Research in African Literatures, vol. 35, n° 3, 2004, p. 47, 48, 59.

23  Tricia Hupton, “Realizing the flexible Imaginary: Canadian Identity in Contemporary Theatre,” Vancouver (BC), University of British Columbia, 2005, p. 2.

24  Andrew Apter, “Yoruba Ethnogenesis from Within,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 55, 2, 2013, p. 356.

25  John L. Comaroff, “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline,” American Anthropologist, 112, 4, 2010, p. 253.

26  Mark Currie, “The Manufacture of Identities,” in Postmodern Narrative Theory, ed. Mark Currie, Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1988, p. 17.

27  Djanet Sears, “Afterwords,” Afrika Solo, Toronto, Sister Vision, 1990.

28  Andrew Apter, art. cit., p. 363-365.

29  Oyeronke Olajubu, Women in the Yoruba Religious Sphere, State University of New York Press, 2003, p. 29-30.

30  Adeagbo Akinjogbin, Milestones and Concepts in Yoruba History and Culture: A Key to understanding Yoruba History, Lagos, Olu-Akin Publishers, 2002, p. 104-118.

31  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, Toronto, Scirocco Press, 1997, p. 14-15. All quotations will be taken from this edition.  

32  Djanet Sears, “nOTES,” Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 14.

33  James McKinnon, PhD dissertation cit., p. 5.

34  Wole Soyinka, op. cit., p. 144.

35  Djanet Sears, Testifyin’: Contemporary African-Canadian Drama, vol. 2, Toronto, Playwrights Canada Press, 2003, p. iii.

36  Peter Dickinson, art. cit., p. 191.

37  As reflected in cultic representations and salutations attributed to the òrìṣà, Èṣù’s gender is indeterminate, if not confusing.

38  Toyin Falola, “Esu: The God without Boundaries,” Esu: Yoruba God, Power, and the Imaginative Frontiers, ed. Toyin Falola, Durham NC, Carolina Academic Press, 2013, p. 17-18.

39  Sidney Bremer, “Home in Harlem, New York: Lessons from the Harlem Renaissance Writers,” PMLA, vol. 105, n°1, 1990, p. 50.

40  Marlene Moser, “From Performing Wholeness to Providing Choices: Situated Knowledge in Afrika Solo and Harlem Duet,” Theatre Research in Canada, vol. 29, n° 2,2008, p. 9.

41  Sidney Bremer, art. cit., p. 47-48.

42   Mat Buntin, “An Interview with Djanet Sears,” Canadian Adaptation of Shakespeare Project (CASP), 3 March 2017. www.canadianshakespeares.ca/

43  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 56-57.

44  Ibid., p. 21.

45  Ibid., p. 106-107.

46  Ibid., p. 21.

47  Id. Emphasis added.

48  Ibid., p. 35. Emphasis added.

49  Margaret Thompson Drewal, Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1992, p. 51-88.

50  Except it is not so: a statement which underlines the Yoruba belief in the bond between parents and their children which allows the former to demand certain rights from the latter even if she/he does not want to oblige. This authority to enforce action is derived from the spiritual connection shared by both.

51  Ayo Opefeyitimi, Women in Yoruba Culture: A Dozen of Academic Articles, Ibadan, Penthouse Publications, 2009, p. 164-167.

52  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 60. Emphasis added.

53  Zachary Kingdon, A Host of Devils: The History and Context of the Making of Makonde Spirit Sculpture, London, Routledge, 2002, p. 132; Elisabeth Hsu and Chris Lowe, Wind. Life. Health: An Anthropological and Historical Perspective, Hoboken (New Jersey), Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, p. 44.

54  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 60.

55  Ibid., p. 35. Emphasis added.

56  Ibid., p. 47. Emphasis in the original.

57  Id.

58  Ibid., p. 61.

59  Id.

60  James McKinnon, PhD dissertation cit., p. 126.

61  Toyin Falola, op. cit., p. 14.

62  Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 61.

63  Id.

64  Id.

65  Id.

66  Id.

67  Toyin Falola, op. cit., p. 17.

68  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 61.

69  Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, “Place and Displacement in Djanet Sears’s Harlem Duet and The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God,” in Middle Passages and the Healing Place of History: Migration and Identity in Black Women’s Literature, ed. Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, Columbus (Ohio), The Ohio State University Press, 2006, p. 159.

70  Margaret Jane Kidnie, “Seeing Beyond Tragedy in Harlem Duet,” Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 36, 2, 2001, p. 42.

71  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 51.

72  Ibid., p. 55.

73  Ibid., p. 74.

74  In order to link Billie and her action in this play to Shakespeare’s “A Sybil… In her prophetic fury sewed the work” (III.4.72-74), and since Billie is also Sybil, a name given to her by her father, Canada, most scholars, including Mafe, describe the power that she casts on the handkerchief as “fetish,” “voodoo,” “witchcraft” and “juju,” a description that does not reflect what she does with the handkerchief in a deeply-conscious Yoruba sense as I have explained.

75  Teresa N. Washington, Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Aje in Africana Literatures, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2005, p. 13-14.

76  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 75.

77  Ibid., p. 75-76.

78  Teresa N. Washington, op. cit, p. 29.

79  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 76.

80  I have borrowed the term “manifestation of aje” from Washington.

81  Toyin Falola, op. cit., p. 14, 6.

82  Lekan Balogun, “Ajubaba: Shakespeare and Yoruba Goddess,” International Journal of Comparative Literature & Translation Studies, vol.1, n° 3, 2013, p. 23.

83  Toyin Falola, op. cit., p. 14.

84  Teresa N. Washington, p. 14-17.

85  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 76.

86  Karin Barber, “Literature in Yoruba: poetry and prose; travelling theatre and modern drama,” in The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, eds. Abiola Irele and Simon Gikandi, Cambridge, CUP, 2004, p. 362-363.

87  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 102.

88  Ibid., p. 29.

89  Ibid., p. 102.

90  Ibid., p. 103.

91  Ibid., p. 102.

92  Ibid., p. 95-96.

93  Ibid., p. 45.

94  Ibid., p. 83.

95  Karin Barber, chap. cit., p. 362.

96  Jon Kaplan, “Alison Sealy-Smith Bursts Bard’s Bubble,” Now, 1997, p. 101.

97  Linda Burnett, art. cit., p. 78.

98  Margaret Jane Kidnie, art. cit., p. 51.

99  Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet, op. cit., p. 117.

100  Stuart Hall, “Introduction: Who Needs ‘Identity?’” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul Du Gay, London, SAGE Publications Ltd., 1996, p. 8.

101  Sears, “nOTES,” in op. cit., p. 15.

102  Ric Knowles, “The Nike Method: A Wide-Ranging Conversation between Djanet Sears and Alison Sealy Smith,” Canada Theatre Review, 1998, p. 30.

Pour citer cet article

Lekan Balogun (2017). "“From Performing the ‘Sundiata Form’ to Staging the Òrìṣà” : Djanet Sears’s search for orírun in Harlem Duet". Shakespeare en devenir - Les Cahiers de La Licorne - Shakespeare en devenir | N°12 - 2017.

[En ligne] Publié en ligne le 20 décembre 2017.

URL : http://shakespeare.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/index.php?id=1115

Consulté le 19/01/2018.

A propos des auteurs

Lekan Balogun

Lekan Balogun bagged his PhD from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand after both his BA and MA (Distinction) in Theatre Arts from the Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, Nigeria, where he now teach Playwriting, Performance Studies, African and Diaspora Theatre, Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Gender and Cultural Studies. Lekan is also an award-winning playwright, has written plays for the Royal Court Theatre, London, British Council, Nigeria, Flinn THEATER, Germany, the National Troupe of Nigeria, and the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) among others.


Les Cahiers Shakespeare en devenir
Revue La Licorne

Université de Poitiers
Maison des Sciences de l'Homme et de la Société
Bâtiment A5
5, rue Théodore Lefebvre
86000 Poitiers - France



Recevez en temps réel les dernières mises à jour de notre site en vous abonnant à un ou à plusieurs de nos flux RSS :

Informations légales

ISSN électronique : 1958-9476

Dernière mise à jour : 21 décembre 2017

Edité avec Lodel.

Administration du site (accès réservé)