Theater

Red Velvet at Chicago Shakes: In 1833 London, the Actor Is Guilty of Acting While Black

Johnstone and Cross. Photos by Liz Lauren.

Ira Aldridge is a unique 19th century hero: An African-American actor who gains renown performing all over Europe. He plays iconic Shakespearean roles such as Macbeth, Othello and King Lear. But he is only accepted as Lear because he smears on whiteface makeup and wears white gloves. Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti is Ira Aldridge’s story. He is the first black actor to play Othello in London in 1833, during the time when Parliament is debating its eventual vote to abolish slavery. It’s a 19th century drama with 21st century messages about racism and identity.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Red Velvet, directed by Gary Griffin, stars Dion Johnstone, a highly regarded Stratford Festival performer. He plays Aldridge as the young actor with dynamism and a bit of arrogance, and his older self as an ailing, depleted actor.

In 1833, Aldridge arrives at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden to play the Moor, invited by his friend, theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Greg Thomas Anderson). He’s replacing the famous tragedian, Edmund Kean, who collapsed onstage. Some of the company members are ill at ease about their new colleague, especially Charles Kean (Michael Hayden), son of Edmund, and the stage veteran Bernard Ward (Roderick Peeples). But the young performer, Henry Forester (an ebullient Jürgen Hooper), responds to Aldridge’s fame, and Ellen Tree, the great British actor (Chaon Cross, delightful as always), is eager to perform with him.

Aldridge asks Tree to perform Desdemona in a style different than what she is used to. He’s an advocate of a more natural style of acting than the favored “teapot” style of that era, so named because of the actor’s pose. One hand is on hip and one arm outstretched, as the actor proclaims the speech to the audience.

Aldridge demonstrates the way he’d like to do his scenes with Tree. The other actors gasp when he kisses her hand. For the final tragic scene between Othello and Desdemona, he shows her how he will seem to be choking her and how she can signal him with her eyes if anything is amiss.

Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Annie Purcell) visits his dressing room before his performance. In a sweet and poignant scene, they plan for the day when they will be able to take a house and live in London.

Anderson and Johnstone. Photo by Liz Lauren.

But their dreams are not to be. Aldridge’s performance is seen as too strong and even brutal; Ellen Tree has bruises. The critics rage against Aldridge’s acting style and make racist comments about his pronunciation, which is too—shall we say American—and his features, which are not European. After two performances, Pierre is ordered by the company’s board to ask Aldridge to step down.

The play begins and ends with Aldridge, now 60, preparing to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland, in 1867. The scenes are framed with the actor being interviewed by a young Polish journalist (Purcell). The role of Terence, his dresser (Peeples), could be expanded in these scenes and the distracting journalist subplot, which the playwright uses to tease out Aldridge’s personal story, eliminated.

Aldridge was a towering figure, an African-American child of free black parents in New York, at a time when free blacks were not recognized as U.S. citizens. After falling in love with theater and performing with the African Grove Theatre, he realized he could never play the roles he wanted in his own country, so at the age of 17, he sailed for Europe. He gained wide acclaim for his performances in Russia, Prussia, Poland and provincial England. See his biography and the playbill for his Covent Garden performance here.

Red Velvet is performed in two hour-long acts, notable for the charismatic performances by Johnstone and Cross. The first act is brilliant and animated, but despite Griffin’s skillful direction, the pace of the second act slows and loses energy.

Griffin stages Red Velvet in the round in CST’s Courtyard Theater. A massive carved proscenium arch hangs above the stage and red velvet curtains are lowered between scenes around the performance area. Scenic design is created by Scott M. Davis, costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and sound design by Christopher Kriz.

Lolita Chakrabarti established her theater resume as an actor. Red Velvet, her debut play, was first produced in London in 2012, with her husband Adrian Lester playing Aldridge. The play was staged here by Raven Theatre in 2016. I reviewed that production and concluded that Aldridge was only guilty of acting while black.

Red Velvet continues at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier through January 21. Tickets are $48-88 with special “CST for $20” tickets for patrons under 35. Buy them online or call the box office at 312-595-5600.

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