Who would have thought that at one point in time non-traditional casting would have meant having a black man play Shakespeare’s tragic moor, Othello? Yet that is what happened in London in 1833, almost 220 years after “Othello” was first performed in the English capital, when a black actor named Ira Aldridge took to the stage of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in the title role, the first black man to play the part on a major London stage.
Lenox’s Shakespeare & Company and the esteemed Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson are bringing that story to life through September 13, with the first American production of “Red Velvet,” a play by the English-Indian author Lolita Chakrabarti, that premiered at London’s Tricycle Playhouse in 2012 and transferred with its British cast intact to St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
It is fitting that “Red Velvet” enjoy an American-born production, which officially opened on August 14, since Aldridge himself was an American, born in New York in 1807 to free black parents and, after attending the African Free School, trained with the African Company/African Grove Theatre in New York. It was only after the theater was burned down under mysterious circumstances that Aldridge sailed to England to resume his career as an actor, playing black and African roles to start but slowly picking up parts in the repertory of the day.
Chakrabarti sets her play in a dressing room in Lodz, Poland, in 1867, as an aging Aldridge reaches the end of one of his numerous tours of the Continent playing such roles as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III and Lear and becoming the highest paid artist in Imperial Russia. Here, Thompson plays the old, exhausted actor with only the mildest hint of the frailty he is adamant about disguising. Thompson’s Aldridge comes across as a still-formidable figure, able to frighten servants and visitors, but also possessing an anger and resentment that belies his international acclaim. Chakrabarti then flashes back to 1833 to allow us to see the roots of this anger and understand how it was honed so brutally in the subsequent years.
Now, the stage of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, the playwright depicts Aldridge’s introduction to the members of the legendary actor Edmund Kean’s company, where he is to step into the role of Othello to replace the stricken Kean, who will die shortly thereafter. The company, particularly Kean’s son Charles and the older actor Bernard Warde, are resentful of Aldridge’s presence, especially in light of the American’s arrogance about his own slightly more realistic style of acting in contrast to the over-gesticulating, loud declamation method of the English troupe. Kean’s partner, Pierre Laporte, is an advocate of Aldridge, who manages to win over the actor Henry Forrester and, most important, the influential actress Ellen Tree, who happens to be Charles’s fiancé.
Director Daniela Varon, in a dimly-lit opening sequence, introduces the audience silently to the overly-broad style of English acting at the time, before setting into the reality of play’s settings. Her staging of Aldridge’s first rehearsal with the Kean troupe, as she swirls the characters all over the Tina Packer Playhouse’s thrust stage, is charged with life and energy, as the overly-effusive Aldridge takes a commanding, yet not always appreciated, role in attempting to bring the troupe up to his level of interpretation and presentation for “Othello.” Thompson infuses the American interloper with a cocky confidence that casts aside any objections, as well as with a certain charisma that charms the women of the troupe and convinces Tree to take her chances on Aldridge’s ideas.
Kelly Curran is an almost equally formidable presence as Tree, playing an actress who is in touch with her abilities, but open to new ideas and interpretations rather than being stuck in the conventions of the past. Her Tree is knowledgeable, kind, caring and willing to offer a warm welcome to the American guest. Joe Tapper creates a Laporte who is adamant in his support for Aldridge’s role in the company and intolerant of those members who object to the man’s presence, while later presenting the Frenchman’s pain and shame when he has to betray his American friend under humiliating circumstances.
Following the opening of “Othello” at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, the cast reads the reviews in the London papers in one of Chakrabarti’s most astonishing and shocking sequences. While she has obviously manufactured the dialogue of her play, here she presents the actual words of these very real reviews. To say that they are shocking to the modern ear is an understatement, as they reveal a vituperative, vulgarly-superior racism that reminds one that prejudice toward black people is not just an American phenomenon. That the audience has to listen to these genuinely cruel and nasty comments brings us back to the present where we see our own country dealing with a sad tradition of racism and questioning the language and symbols that allow this tradition to continue.
Lloyd does some of his best work in these sequences as he not only allows Aldridge’s carefully concealed and sequestered anger to emerge into an unforgiving and dangerous rage, but expresses in violent eloquence years and years of hurt and maltreatment in the name of propriety and culture. This proves once again why Thompson is so in demand for the great classic roles that require vast emotional ranges, but makes one question why he is not cast more frequently or better known by the public.
The entire cast most ably supports Thompson, with a caliber that complements Thompson’s on stage efforts. Ben Chase is childishly smarmy as Charles, who believes he should be the heir apparent to his father, and Malcolm Ingram is appropriately fussy and resistant as the old actor more comfortable in the traditional, ejaculatory ways of playing. He is quite different as Terence, the old Aldridge’s aging retainer, who strives to make things as easy as possible for his employer while promoting his image as a titanic, not-to-be bothered with actor. Aaron Bartz is fine as the open Forrester, who’s anxious to work with and learn from Aldridge, unflurried by the fact that the guest is African-American.
Christiana Nelson has some fine moments as Aldridge’s white wife, Margaret, depicting the woman’s struggles to maneuver in a society that does not always welcome such interracial marriages, while trying to be supportive and encouraging of her husband despite his ego and expectations. She also plays, in the Poland sequences that bookend the play, a young female reporter who is trying to function in a man’s workplace where she is subjected to ridicule and worse, and looks to the aging Aldridge’s fortitude and tenaciousness.
Ravin Patterson has the nearly silent role of the black maid, Connie, who for one lengthy scene stands behind a coffee setting emotionless, while witnessing the Kean Company’s vivid and occasionally nasty conversations about the presence of Aldridge. It is painful to watch her watching all of this, and one suspects that although quiet she is taking all of this in, which is proved correct in a later scene when she tries to protect the uber-confident Aldridge from the contempt of the reviews and subtly admonishes him for what she takes as him pushing his luck.
Moria Sine Clinton has created a detailed array of period nineteenth century costumes quite appropriate for the social-striving members of the troupe, as well as some lavish robes and gowns for brief moments of the Shakespearean productions we are able to witness. Matthew Miller’s lighting offers some neatly stylized footlight effects, as well as an evocative mood-setting design for backstage in Lodz. John McDermott has adapted the Packer Playhouse’s stage structural design to accommodate several locations as well as an onstage scene from “Othello” set unexpectedly but suitably toward the back of the thrust stage for decent effect.
It seems that director Varon has indeed “got” what playwright Chakrabarti is attempting to convey. The fascinating evening proceeds along smoothly and surprisingly rewardingly, making “Red Velvet” one of unexpected joys of the summer theater season. Not only does the play introduce a great portion of the audience to Ira Aldridge and his legacy, but it itself is a dynamic, exciting two and a half hours of theater (including intermission) filled with impeccable performances led by the towering John Douglas Thompson.
“Red Velvet” runs in repertory at Shakespeare & Company through September 13. For information and tickets, call the theater’s Box Office at 413.637.3353 or visit their website at www.shakespeare.org.