Something astounding, unprecedent and almost earth-shaking took place in London, England in 1833. A black American actor played Othello at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. The actor was Ira Aldridge and the reaction came from theatre people, theatre owners and critics. That is what Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet is about and it is a dramatic and shocking portrayal of vicious racism against a great actor in a great role.
In 1833 the great Edmund Kean collapsed on the stage of the Theatre Royal while playing Othello. Ira Aldridge, a black American actor, I repeat, went on stage, replacing Kean. As acted by Allan Louis in Red Velvet, he was man of impressive stature with a magnificent and melodious voice able to make an astounding Othello. On stage Louis becomes Aldridge so completely that I saw only Aldridge, But in 1833 Aldridge the black actor faced the brutal racism of some actors, theatre owners and critics as well as the unhindered hatred and opposition to him.
Chakrabarti brings the contemporary hot issue of the abolition of slavery that was considered with disgust by some while others tried to point out some facts about the institution.
We meet the cast of Othello and Charles Kean, the son of Edmund (played superbly by Jeff Lillico), goes ballistic at the thought of a Negro replacing his father. He speaks stentoriously and mockingly about Aldridge and his acting style. Charles represents racism in its ultimate savageness and ferocity. But he is not alone.
Aldridge and Ellen Tree (Ellen Denny) enact two scenes from Othello including the one where the Moor demands the handkerchief from Desdemona. Aldridge shows the fury of the jealous Othello who is descending into the madness that will lead him to kill his wife. But the black man is touching a white actress. Some of the actors meet the image with revulsion.
Denny gives a nuanced performance as Ellen Tree and as Desdemona and she is attracted by Aldridge’s’ forcefulness and display of virility both as Othello and as a person.
The performances received wild ovations from a full theatre but the racist screeches reached an apogee when the newspaper critics spoke. They were expressions of brutal racism with comments about Aldridge’s thick lips, his pronunciation, and his invasion of the English stage until recently occupied by a great actor like Kean. Pierre Laporte (Kyle Blair), the manager who is a decent man and a friend of Aldridge’s is pressured by the theatre owners to close the theatre. He does after only two performances. Blair gives a powerful performance as he tries to argue that Aldridge’s style of naturalistic acting may be the problem and the actor needs to tone down his forcefulness in the role. It sounds like an eager rationalization of an act that is based purely on bigotry and has nothing to do with Aldridge’s style of acting.
Aldridge had all but disappeared from the history of English and American theatre until Chakrabarti “discovered” him after assiduous research. Her play begins in Poland in 1867, where Aldridge is an old man enjoying a rewarding and marvelous career in Europe In the opening scene Aldridge is preparing preparing to play King Lear in Lodz. It then flashes back to Covent Garden in London in 1833. The final scene takes place in Poland where, near the end of his career, Aldridge is putting on white makeup on his face as he prepares to play King Lear. How is that for biting irony?
The play points out that Aldridge, in addition to acting extensively, received a knighthood from a German Duke and was honoured by the Emperor of Austria and the Tsar of Russia.
The play does have some creaky parts especially the opening scene in Poland. We meet Halina (Amelia Sargisson who also plays the actress Betty Lovell and Aldridge’s wife (Margaret), a young Polish reporter, and Casimir (Nathan Howe), speaking German. I found this unnecessary and annoying.
The performances of the cast in general are excellent and the those of Louis, Denny, Lillico and Blair are superb.
The set and props by Julie Fox represent an actor’s dressing room and the back of the stage where Aldridge is playing. Cherissa Richards’ direction is exemplary leaving us with a splendid production of a stunning play.
Why is Chris Abraham, the Artistic Director of Crow’s Theatre not producing Othello? In Allan Louis, he has a magnificent Othello and wonderful actors for the other roles. If Soulpepper can do King Lear and Lear’s Daughter back-to-back, Crow’s can do an even better pair by offering Othello and Red Velvet.
Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti will run until December 18, 2022, at Streetcar Crowsnest Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4M 2T1. http://crowstheatre.com/