Special to Desert Star Weekly from Lisa Lyons
In the history of theatre, from the ancient Greeks to contemporary multi-casting, the idea of casting a black actor to play “Othello” has been seen as earth-shaking in its audacity. Why that should be so and what black actors had to endure to make it an accepted custom is the basis of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet,” now playing at San Diego’s Old Globe on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.
The show tells the story of Ira Aldridge (Albert Jones), a classically trained American actor who was the first black actor to play Othello at London’s prestigious Covent Garden in 1833. The renowned tragedian Edward Kean had been stricken and hospitalized, and rather than go dark (unheard of in the Garden’s history), the company’s French manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan) makes a unilateral decision to hire Aldridge as Kean’s replacement.
This doesn’t go down well with Kean’s petulant son Charles (a scene-stealing John Lavelle) who feels he should rightly step into his father’s shoes despite his obvious lack of talent. Charles’s fiancée and leading lady Ellen Tree (a sparkling Allison Mack) is at first shocked, then intrigued and eventually won over by the larger-than-life Aldridge. The other players seem divided over the appropriateness of the casting, especially older, more staid members like Bernard Warde (Mark Pinter) who cautions that “The British are open – to a point…We like what we know, and we know what we like!” he states firmly.
All of this is set against the British Abolition Movement which was causing rioting in the streets along with calls for the abolition of slavery. The fear that such a provocative move may further inflame London society is dismissed by Laporte who has more faith in the broad-mindedness of the theatre-going public. It will be up to the talent and sheer bombast of Aldridge to pull off the role he has most longed to play. The thought of a large black man grabbing the wrist of the lily-white Desdemona is deemed inappropriate and offensive by the press. But Ellen is fascinated by Aldridge’s idea that, rather than declaiming lines to the audience, that Othello and Desdemona should look at each other, truly feeling the emotions of this tragically mismatched couple; shades of early “method acting” which seems obvious now, but was groundbreaking in 19th century British theatre.
She eagerly embraces the new intimacy and power she feels onstage; but sadly, the reception to the performance is not what any of them (save Charles Kean) expected and desired. The critics are brutal in their reviews of Aldridge’s performance (which playwright Chakrabarti takes from the actual newspaper texts of the time), stating “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English” and labeling him “an unseemly n*gg*r”.
The fallout from Laporte’s brave casting had a toxic effect on not only the actors but on the casting of ethnic actors in major roles for many years to follow. Aldridge was a ground-breaker on many levels and it’s sad that apart from theatre historians, his contributions are mostly unknown to current generations.
As portrayed by Albert Jones, Aldridge is much like the tragic figures he portrays – Othello, Lear, Richard III – a man full of talent, anger, longing, imagination and audacity. He is, as most flawed heroes, his own worst enemy. He will not be swayed by logic or reason, only carried aloft on his aspirations and belief in his own talent. He ignores Laporte’s subtle advice to “move gently” into the intensity of Othello’s emotions that the conservative audiences may recoil from initially; he believes fervently in the truth of drama and his right to portray this most ego-maniacal of Shakespeare’s leading men. Jones has the physical presence and vocal power to inhabit Aldridge’s persona yet to make you feel some pity towards him when the world turns against him.
The supporting actors are outstanding and imbue their characters with real distinction. There is a star turn by Amelia Pedlow, who brilliantly portrays three separate characters: a persistent Polish journalist, a ditsy ingénue and a warm and loving first wife to Aldridge. Monique Gaffney brings her usual depth of character to the role of Connie, the company’s servant, and Michael Aurelio is a dashing Henry Forrester, the young actor playing Cassio who is delighted at Aldridge’s casting as he is in support of the abolitionist movement. Mark Pinter plays both Aldridge’s dresser Terrence and the charmingly fusty Bernard Warde, never drifting into parody in either role. As previously noted, John Lavelle has a scene-stealing turn as the arrogant and delusional Charles Kean. His fabulous “hair toss” had the audience laughing aloud on opening night. Sean Dugan brings a boyish enthusiasm and simmering anger to the complex Laporte who is forced to betray his old friend for the sake of business.
Director Stafford Arima, who previously helmed “Allegiance” and “Ace” for the Globe, has a sure hand with this material, finding the oh-so-relevant references to race and nationalism in the material. He keeps things moving forward, although I had a problem with the decision to have the show open with two characters speaking in Polish for several minutes.
As usual at the Globe, the scenic design, costumes and lighting are perfection. Jason Sherwood’s rotating, cathedral-like proscenium arch is both beautiful and grotesque with macabre touches hidden in its skeletal frame. The lighting design of Jason Lyons captures how theatre must have looked to the audiences in the 1800s with flickering footlights and stately chandeliers casting long shadows. The costumes by David Israel Reynoso are richly elegant, especially Aldridge’s robes as Othello. Kudos to the dressers who make some remarkably speedy changes for Pinter and Pedlow in their multiple roles.
In a climate that is full of uncertainty, with politics, art and race relations under siege, “Red Velvet” seems profoundly prescient despite its being written in 2011. Could Chakrabarti have had a premonition of “Brexit” and “Black Lives Matter”? Finding the universal truths in life is the hallmark of a talented writer, and she is deserving of the many awards the play has received.
If you love theatre go see “Red Velvet” and discover the story of the actor who has a memorial plaque at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in honor of his contributions to the performing arts and another in Lodz, Poland where he was buried after dying while on tour at age 60 in August 1867.
The show plays until April 30, tickets can be purchased at the Box Office, by calling 619-23-GLOBE or online at www.TheOldGlobe.org.