|The play Red Velvet explores race, class, egotism, and art
posted by Ralph Malachowski on Sep 20, 2017 10:30am | comments
Red Velvet explores the true story of the time famed Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean fell ill during a performance. In order to continue, a young, black actor, Ira Aldridge, was hired to take his place. Ira Aldridge had already performed in several cities and in several plays to great acclaim in Britain. Red Velvet tells the story of when a black man in his 20s assumed the role of Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, and the resulting drama surrounding it. The audiences were apparently thrilled by the novelty of realistic acting, and the frisson of a black man on the same stage with a white woman. The critics were not amused, savaging the performance. Ira Aldridge played only two performances in the role.
The playwright wrote the play for her husband, Adrian Lester, who performed it to great acclaim in London in 2012. Ms. Chakrabarti has stated that she is telling the story of Ira Aldridge, as well as addressing the state of affairs in 1833. She believes history repeats itself, so this play is germane to our experience of the world today. The playwright begins her story with Mr. Aldridge badly worn by his decades of touring Europe and Russia. Although only 60, he appears much older. He is about to perform King Lear in Poland. A young journalist breaks into his rooms and forces him to remember his time in London. We then see the events of 1833 unfold. We then return to the day of his death in 1867.
As Ira Aldridge, Forrest McClendon is magnificent. He is everything the young and ambitious Ira Aldridge should be: charismatic; sexy; and self-assured. This Aldridge also happens to be tactless, egotistical, and self-defeating. He single-handedly wishes to change the company to be more consonant to his thoughts of how the entire play should be presented, regardless of the fact that Kean’s son runs the show and is in the play as Iago. It is to the credit of the playwright and the actor that this role can be played in several different ways on several different nights. Ira Aldridge can be an innocent who is brashly ambitious, or calculatingly manipulative. He can be played as innocently arguing for more truth in acting or as a man who desires closer proximity to women. Does Ira Aldridge accidentally injure his Desdemona, or not? Is he sleeping with her offstage, or not? Interesting subtexts add to the richness of the characterization.
Damon Bonetti was exceptional as the manager who hired his friend Ira Aldridge. Their heated encounter was indeed menacing. Again, he was accused of kowtowing to his “politics” in hiring Aldridge. Anti-slavery politics, or …. sexual politics? The two men were close, rather a parallel to Iago and Othello. Was there something more between the two several years before? An intriguing thought.
The ensemble of experienced stage and screen professionals delivers an accomplished whole. In addition, they are David Bardeen, Liz Filios, Adam Hammet, David Pica, Ebony Pullum, and Lauren Sowa. Peter DeLaurier directed.
The Lantern Theater Company is located at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets in Philadelphia. For more information, call the box office at 215.829.0395 or visit www.lanterntheater.org