By Margaret Darby
Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Red Velvet, paints a detailed picture of the social background and history of one of the most famous actors of nineteenth century Europe: Ira Aldridge, an African American born in New York in 1807. When neither his family nor his country would tolerate or support his passion for acting, he fled to London in 1824. He was 17 years old.
Chakrabarti starts her play in 1867, at the end of Aldridge’s life, as he prepares for a performance in Lodz, Poland. He had performed in English all over continental Europe with local casts playing the other roles in their native language. By then, he was famous and lauded throughout Europe, with a chest full of titles and awards. Through Halina Wozniak (Liz Filios), a cub reporter who has snuck into his dressing room to get an exclusive interview, we hear about his career.
The curtain closes for a few seconds and reopens in 1833 in the green room of London’s Covent Garden. The cast is discussing the fate of their troupe after the collapse of Edmund Kean, their Othello. The young French manager of Covent Garden, Pierre Laporte (Damon Bonetti), has underestimated the English disdain for black actors and has hired Ira Aldridge (Forrest McClendon) to replace Edmund Kean’s Othello. Charles Kean (Adam Hammet), Edmund’s son, objects with every fiber of his being and is incensed that his fiancée, Ellen Tree (Lauren Sowa) would even consider playing Desdemona opposite an African American Othello.
Despite the success of the Covent Garden opening night, the press attack like vultures on a carcass. Their vitriol is so caustic that one review said, “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery.” A deluge of protests from the board force Laporte to close the show and send Aldridge packing. Aldridge licks his wounds, gets roles in Ireland, Scotland and continental Europe and becomes one of the most celebrated actors in the world. His is one of 33 names honored by a bronze plaque at the new Globe Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, but he is still largely unknown in the United States.
Director Peter DeLaurier has pooled great talent, managing to show all of the ethnic and social nuances of Aldridge’s time. Connie the maid, a black woman of Caribbean background, is marvelous in telegraphing her emotions with the crook of an eyebrow and gives a most vehement and passionate protest of Othello’s treatment of Desdemona – showing she was convinced by Aldridge’s acting that she thought it was he, and not Shakespeare, who had invented the tale.
Several actors playing multiple roles were so adept at changing their personas that it takes a lot of detective work to figure out one has seen them before. (This is where stage managing (Rebecca Smith), costumes (Janus Stefanowicz), and wigs (Christie Kelly) work their magic, too.) Liz Filios’ transitions from Polish ingénue to Cockney-accented actress to dutiful, proper English housewife are astonishingly nimble. Terence, Aldridge’s humble agent quickly changes to stiff, racist, and pompous Victorian actor. The Polish stagehand also plays a young English actor. All of these transitions are so deft and complete that I defy you to spot them. The Inspector Clouseau accent used by Damon Bonetti was not to my taste, but the audience seemed to enjoy it.
Forrest McClendon is resplendent as Ira Aldridge. He has mastered every detail of delivery and his transition from ailing aged actor to young upstart is vivid and immediate. He has such electricity in his Othello, it can be felt to the last row of the theatre. The heavy grief of life as he prepares his last King Lear is palpable and made more poignant as he plasters on white face paint.
This play not only makes the audience aware of yet another famous African American ignored by history books, but it also shows us some regrettable social injustices of the past. Peter DeLaurier’s masterful direction just might be a key to using the arts as a guide to correcting social injustices of the present.
If you go: Shows continue through October 8. Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Tickets cost $26 to $43, student tickets available. Purchase tickets online at www.lanterntheater.org.