The First Black Othello: Red Velvet

04/09/2014 4:00 AM |

Red Velvet
St. Ann’s Warehouse

Actress Lolita Chakrabarti started researching the life of 19th-century African-American theater actor Ira Aldridge in the late 1990s, and it took years of readings, rewritings and rejections before her play about him, Red Velvet, debuted in London with Adrian Lester as its star. Sometimes a play can diminish over such a long period, but the opposite has happened here: every scene, every speech, every dramatic juxtaposition has been carefully thought out yet still boasts a bristling and very theatrical vitality.

We meet Lester’s Aldridge as a sick and embittered man who suffers no fools gladly. The second scene takes place many years before, when Aldridge is engaged to go on as Othello in place of the ailing actor Edmund Kean. Walking into a
rehearsal, Aldridge is met with some liberal and understanding responses, others reactionary and clearly racist. Kean’s mediocre son Charles (Oliver Ryan) is a particular problem, a stodgy, hateful twit who can barely conceal his apoplectic rage at having to act opposite a black man.

Chakrabarti makes it clear that Aldridge was not a careful assimilationist but a proud and intense man who had very definite ideas about acting. He challenges the out-of-date showboating of Kean’s company, which is met with excitement by some of the players, particularly Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas), who plays his Desdemona. Lucas has the difficult task of re-creating a 19th-century style of acting, in which the performers were always facing front, and then letting it change into a slightly different type of outmoded acting; she does a beautiful job of it. Even better, at the end of the first act, when Lucas and Lester play a scene from Othello in Aldridge’s preferred style, they reactivate everything that must have been exciting about the florid performances of this period without ever condescending to it or separating themselves from it. (The extremely evocative lighting design, created by Oliver Fenwick, also helps.)

The second act of Red Velvet details Aldridge’s dismissal from Kean’s company. When the viciously racist reviews of Aldridge’s performance are read aloud to the assembled players, some are appalled and others feel justified in their own racist misgivings. What follows is a hugely demanding scene in which Aldridge has a semibreakdown while pleading with the manager (Eugene O’Hare) to let him keep his job. Lester goes through an extraordinarily varied and intense series of emotions, and it’s clear that he’s as deeply involved in his role as it’s possible to be. He comes through with a hauntingly three-dimensional portrait of a complex, charming, gifted man fighting for his right to live and create. As theater goes, this is the real, living, breathing, violent thing, a major performance in a major new play.