Red Velvet

Red Velvet   |   2016

August 12-14 2016 at The Historic Hoover Theatre. The cast:

Ira Aldridge Nathan Sandoval
Terence Gavin Lukanc
Charles Kean Andrew Strauss
Henry Forrester Max Claus
Bernard Ward Tom Hogan
Pierre Laporte Galen Bonwick
Ellen Tree Evelyn Rumsby
Margaret Aldridge Mary Florek
Betty Lovell Naomi Smith
Halina Wozniak Sharon Macauley
Connie Sunaya Krishnapura

About the Play by Bob Rumsby

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1833. Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. A young black American actor has been asked to take over the role. But as the public riot in the streets over the abolition of slavery, how will the cast, critics and audience react to the revolution taking place in the theatre?

Red Velvet is an award-winning play by Lolita Chakrabarti, first performed by the Tricycle Theatre Company in England in 2012, eventually transferring to New York and later to the Garrick Theatre in London where it recently closed. The play tells the somewhat obscure story of Ira Aldridge, the 19th-century African-American actor who played Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, Shylock, and Lear to great acclaim all over Europe.

Set against a backdrop of slavery riots in London, the central five scenes of the play focus on Ira Aldridge’s short-lived engagement to play Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1833, following the collapse on stage of the great tragedian Edmund Kean.

Most of the characters in these scenes are drawn straight from the history books, including the famous actress Ellen Tree, the actor Charles Kean (son of Edmund), and Pierre Laporte, the Covent Garden theatre manager. Ira clashes with Charles in particular, and despite Ira’s reputation and apparent success in the role of Othello, his engagement is cut short after only two performances. The reviews in the London papers are brutal, proving that local audiences were just not ready for a “man of colour” (no matter how talented) to take the stage as the Moor of Venice. Thankfully, Aldridge had better luck in Eastern Europe during his later years, winning awards and receiving effusive praise. One reviewer in Poznan had this to say:

His acting is like a stream: it begins easily and gently, and then–together with a thunderstorm and pouring rain–it bulges, roars, and knocks everything down, spreading chaos all around. There is a great force of nature in the powerful body of Mr. Aldridge.

The opening and closing scenes of Red Velvet give us a glimpse of Ira’s final days, in his sixties, fighting poor health as he prepares to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland. We discover that Ira was never really welcomed back to the big London theatres after 1833, and we are left to wonder what might have been. Aldridge was unable to start a trend. It took another century for leading black actors such as Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones to become de facto choices for the role of Othello, and it was only 50 years ago that Laurence Olivier wore blackface to play the part on both stage and screen. As recently as 1981, Anthony Hopkins was chosen to play Othello in the BBC Television Shakespeare series.

What really drew our company to this play, more than its themes of slavery, prejudice, and racial tension, was its direct ties to Shakespeare and its commentary on the evolution of acting and stagecraft. We were interested in giving some of our older actors, including a few notable alumni, an opportunity to tackle a modern play, while not departing completely from the world of Shakespearean drama.

Red Velvet FlyerThe play includes two scenes that feature actual dialogue from Shakespeare’s Othello. In Scene 2, Ira and his fellow actors rehearse a scene from the play, and Scene 3 is a short segment of the actual performance of Othello later that evening. Also, in the final scene, the aging Ira speaks a few key lines from King Lear. The Othello rehearsal scene is particularly interesting and entertaining to watch. Ira questions the company’s formulaic approach to acting, and he tries to lead Ellen Tree, as Desdemona, towards a more natural way of speaking and staging Shakespearean verse.

We hope you enjoy our take on this popular modern play, which represents a change of direction for our young company and quite a challenge at the same time!

More about the play. An article by Alex Ross