The Shakespeare Theater Company concludes its 2021/2022 season with a truly brilliant production of red velvet, is now playing at the Michael R. Klein Theater at Lansburgh until July 17, 2022.
Written by Olivier Award-winning playwright and actress Lolita Chakrabarti, red velvet explores the artistry and accomplishments of Ira Aldridge, a legendary Shakespearean figure who has been widely forced into darkness in English and American history. Both a historical account of his life and an ode to his art, red velvet seeks to reintegrate Aldridge, one of the first black classical actors to succeed on the world stage, into the Western cultural memory of Shakespearean theatre. Under the direction of Jade King Carroll, who makes her STC debut with this production, the show focuses on the incredible weight carried by those marginalized people who are determined to carve out a place for themselves and how the global struggles for justice are intimately linked.
red velvet begins in 1867 in Poland, where Ira Aldridge – played by Amari Cheatom who gives an utterly thrilling performance – is set to perform as King Lear. The ensemble, decorated like a dressing room, is opulent in reds and dark woods, and Lear’s exquisite costume holds court over a mannequin. A young German-speaking man and woman sneak onto the stage. The two seem to be having a flirtatious getaway to the theater, but when Aldridge discovers them in his dressing room, the woman turns out to be Halina Wozniak, a Polish journalist.
Halina (played by stunt double Kimberly Gilbert who performed this and two other roles excellently given the ten days she had to prepare) is eager to talk with Aldridge about her career and her recent illness. Reluctantly, he allows her to ask questions as he struggles to prepare for the night’s performance. As she fumbles her way through the interview, he grows more and more furious. When she continues to harass him about his two-night performance at the Covent Garden Theater as a young man and his refusal to return to London since, Aldridge’s anger explodes and he forces her out of the play.
Alone, Aldridge drifts downward as time rolls back thirty-four years, a revolving stage slowly revealing the Covent Garden Theater as it appeared in 1833. Aldridge drifts away and the theater company arrives on stage amid protests for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. . As they await news of that night’s performance – their leader Edmund Kean has suddenly taken ill and they are without Othello – the band discuss their differing opinions on the matter. Connie (Shannon Dorsey), a Jamaican maid at the theater, takes care of every call and call the actors make as they debate. His presence and restrained reactions to the unfolding scene lend an essential gravity to the drama.
Company boss Pierre Laporte, played with beautiful tenderness and charm by Michael Glenn, arrives with news: Ira Aldridge will play Othello instead of Kean. When Aldridge (now 26) enters the business, he can’t hold back his shock and, in the case of Charles Kean (Jaye Ayres-Brown) and Bernard Warde (David Bishins), his outrage.
It is not difficult to imagine the backlash Aldridge would have suffered at this time or later performances on the Covent Garden stage, especially as such. racism keep on going today. In the play, as in real life, Aldridge received mixed reviews, with many disparaging her performance solely on the basis of her blackness. In one of the show’s most powerful scenes, Connie tells Aldridge as she reluctantly hands him the day’s papers, “I’m just saying people see what they look like.”
Either way, Aldridge is almost as critical of himself as the press. Certainly, he feels the weight of performing in such a renowned theater. With that comes the pressure of knowing that he is making history for himself and all black actors amid a time of monumental social unrest over the persistence of slavery in the British colonies. Naturally, he is determined to prove his talent. But after his second night on stage, Laporte informs him that the theater management fired him, choosing to sink rather than keep him on stage. With this, the play travels back in time again to 1867 Poland where 60-year-old Aldridge is preparing to perform. King Lear.
Here, at the end of his life, Aldridge has enjoyed phenomenal success as a performer. He played a pivotal role in spreading Shakespeare’s work throughout Europe, bringing it to places that had never heard of it, effectively contributing to making Shakespearean literature the cultural force we know today. today. Given this history, it’s no small part to play as a performer, and it’s an absolute treat to watch Amari Cheatom bring Ira back to life on stage. Aldridge of Cheatom is flawed, passionate and determined, as tenacious and witty in his youth as he is proud and erratic in his old age.
Really, all the actors shine in their roles. Jaye Ayres-Brown as the haughty and titled Charles Keane and Emily DeForest as the driven and smug Ellen Tree particularly stood out. The richly decorated turntable (Scenic Designer You-Shin Chen) and beautifully detailed costumes (Costume Designer Rodrigo Muñoz) are the icing on the cake. Shakespeare’s Theater Company red velvet is beautiful in every sense of the word.
An essential element of red velvet What King Carroll’s production brings to life is its insistence that the global struggles for freedom are inextricable and ever-forward, even as our personal experiences of injustice threaten to weigh us down. As Ira Aldridge makes history on the Covent Garden stage, anti-slavery protests erupt across Britain and its colonies. While Connie waits for members of the theater company, her family in Jamaica strikes for emancipation. While Charles Kean rails against the idea of black actors participating in English theatre, Ellen Tree reminds him that the same has been said about women. As Halina Wozniack interviews Aldridge, she does so knowing this is her chance not only to make progress for women in journalism, but also to highlight the presence of Poles under a Prussian and Russian government that refuses to admit their existence. It’s an invaluable reminder to keep fighting, to keep making history.
red velvet now plays at the Michael R. Klein Theater at Lansburgh through July 17, 2022. The runtime is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. To buy tickets here.
Header photo: Amari Cheatom and Emily DeForest in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography.