A year ago I walked through the Walters Art Museum and I saw a painting of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American Shakespearean actor to garner fame in the 1800s. I attended the staged reading of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, a story about Mr. Aldridge’s life, held at the Walters later that month and was captivated by his story. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw that the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company was performing a full production of Red Velvet. Directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap, Red Velvet is a story about racism, perseverance, and change. It’s the kind of story we need in today’s political climate.
The play starts in Lodz, Poland in 1867. A young Polish female journalist Halina Wozniak (McLean Jesse) sneaks into the dressing room of the the famed Ira Aldridge with the help of stagehand Casmir (Seamus Miller). Aldridge (Christian R. Gibbs) is a withered old man here, his personal valet Terence (Dave Gamble) by his side. Aldridge has toured Europe performing Shakespeare to the masses, yet Ms. Wozniak questions him about why he hasn’t returned to play London in 30 years. The audience is then transported back to 1833 London, the place that Aldridge has kept in his memory all these years.
In 1833, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden is performing Othello and the title character has fallen ill. Here we see the backstage rehearsal action with actors Ellen Tree (Laura Rocklyn), Betty Lovell (McLean Jesse), Bernard Warde (Dave Gamble), Henry Forester (Seamus Miller) and Charles Kean (Ron Heneghan) the day of an evening performance. Jamaican servant Connie (Tracy Farrar) sits in the background watching this cast of characters, invisible until they request a spot of tea or a macaron. Charles Kean, son of the playhouse Othello, assumes he will be cast as the title role and the rest of the actors will move up in rank. Unbeknownst to them, French theatre manager Pierre LaPorte (Yury Lomakin) hires his long time friend Mr. Aldridge to play Othello. The actors are shocked to see that he is a Black man and a Yankee to boot. Is London society ready to see a Black guy from New York play Othello? Clutch the pearls!!
Ira is a different kind of actor. Ira would “rather slide in and out of the rules than be strangled by them.” He shakes up the cast in more ways than one. Some welcome the change, others resist. My date informed me that during this time period there was a major shift in not only the ending of slavery in 1830s England, but also in the way Shakespeare was performed on stage: classical style vs. the domestic style of acting; stiff and static vs. emotional and nuanced; old school vs. new school. Ira is new school and not everyone is ready for it. Red Velvet presented this dynamic shift in culture beautifully.
A few standout performances include Christian R. Gibbs as Ira Aldridge. He had a powerful and fiery sense about him that made you think he was starting a theatrical revolution. His strong voice, stage presence, and articulation were every bit a Shakespearean actor in his prime.
Ron Heneghan as Charles Kean was intriguing. His gesturing in the classical style had me giggling and his temper tantrum was dripping with white privilege. He epitomized the defiance of change. Laura Rocklyn played Ellen Tree as the anchor of the Royal Covent Garden cast and the show’s Desdemona. Ms. Rocklyn portrayed her character with grace, emotional strength, intellect, and vulnerability. I always like strong, well-rounded female characters and Lolita Chakrabarti delivered.
McLean Jesse was captivating. She played 3 characters, with 3 different dialects and 3 different personalities. She was wonderful! As Halina Wozniak the polish journalist, Ms. Jesse was defiant, spunky, and likeable. She was fun to watch as the overly dramatic young actress Betty Lovell, and sweet as Margaret Aldridge the British wife of Ira. I could have watched her play all of the roles.
The technical aspects of the production complimented the action well. The costumes by Kristina Lambdin were well tailored and appropriate to the mid-1800s time period with light colored dresses with full skirts, short-waisted blazers and slacks. The set by Timothy J. Jones was two levels and I thought it was a great way to differentiate the backstage from the formal stage area. I appreciated the brick walls, red curtains, as well as the printed parchment on the floor and hanging illuminated above the action from the ceiling.
Daniel O’Brien’s lighting design was soft and warm. The flickering floor lights added depth to the action on the second level. The sound by Cheryl J. Williams was well placed in the scenes and transported the audience to an after show party or a British street.
The direction by Ms. Dunlap was alive. The blocking was active and adversarial when it needed to be, and slow and paced during intimate scenes. The emotions, phrasing, and staging had movement and you could tell there was a strong directorial hand guiding the production. Lastly, the accents were on point! French, Polish, and British were all present and well executed thanks to dialect coach Zach Champion.
Making theater current is important and CSC understood that with this production. Racism exists and people’s inability to change effects how we relate to each other. My Dad always told me, don’t let other people’s ignorance define you. Openness, acceptance, and willingness to change perspective are needed now more than ever. “Theater is a political act” and Ira Aldridge was an activist before his time.
Should I stay or should I go? Don’t miss this production! Shakespeare nerds will love it. Political activists will enjoy it. It’s a show for anyone who appreciates the need for progress in theater and in society. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company presented a solid, well paced, timeless, and intriguing production. We often come to theater to escape reality, but this production is as real as it gets. (Z)
Red Velvet runs Feb 2-25. Running time is roughly 2 hours and 30 mins with one 15-minute intermission.