‘Red Velvet’ transports audiences to the tumultuous world backstage in the mid-1800s of London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Gary Griffin, the award-winning play reminds us of who is veiled into the history of Shakespearean performers.
‘Red Velvet’ tells the story of a black actor, Ira Aldridge, who leaves New York in 1822 as a teenager and heads to London because actors of color were not being hired to perform in Shakespearean plays in the United States. Aldridge’s life on stage confronts the belief that Shakespeare is for everyone.
In 1833 at London’s Theatre Royal, Edmund Kean, a great Shakespearean actor, collapses on stage while performing the lead in Othello. Edmund’s son, Charles, wants to take over his father’s role, but Edmund is replaced by the young black American actor, Ira Aldridge, who had portrayed Othello in the provinces with much success.
Aldridge’s performance in one of London’s most prestigious theaters was mesmerizing. But the reviews by many of London’s theater critics were conflicting, revealing their racial prejudices as they pointed out Aldridge’s physical features and unusual accent that made it difficult for him to pronounce English impeccably. Following Aldridge’s first two performances, the production was cancelled. Unfortunately, other major theaters in London were closed to him, so Aldridge launched his first continental tour in 1852, becoming one of the most famous and celebrated actors of the nineteenth century in eastern Europe.
Dion Johnstone who portrays Aldridge in ‘Red Velvet’ said, “Ira Aldridge used his platform on the stage to convince European audiences that people of color had souls and intellects as wise and as deep as theirs.” Aldridge became known across the continent for other great Shakespearean roles, including Shylock, Macbeth and King Lear. As was customary at the time, he played what were held as traditionally white roles in “whiteface.”
‘Red Velvet’ makes audiences ponder about racial performances. There are few black Hamlets, King Lears, and others. Shakespeare’s plays are powerful, but actors of color can make them seem political. In ‘Red Velvet,’ Aldridge deliberates at length that there is “something about velvet . . . a deep promise of what’s to come.”
In addition to Dion Johnstone’s outstanding performance as Ira Aldridge, Chaon Cross plays the famous stage actress Ellen Tree, who appears as Desdemona opposite Aldridge’s Othello. The rest of the remarkable cast includes Greg Matthew Anderson, Michael Hayden, Jürgen Hooper, Tiffany Renee Johnson, Roderick Peeples, Annie Purcell and Bri Sudia.
DETAILS: ‘Red Velvet’ is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, through January 21, 2018. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes. For tickets and other information, call 312-595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com .
Francine Pappadis Friedman
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