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Red Velvet

Peering Through a Mirror at Racism in Theater

By Lolita Chakrabarti
Tricycle Theatre, St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Friday, March 28, 2014, B–111&112 (front middle grandstand)
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham

Aldridge playing Othello in gold cloak, ruffled shirt and black pants with a red velvet curtain pulled back behined his right shoulder
Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester) plays Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, the central scene of Tricycle Theatre's production of Red Velvet. Photo by Tristram Kenton, St. Ann's Warehouse.

In Red Velvet, Adrian Lester is playing Ira Aldridge, the great African-American Shakespearean actor making history with his April 10, 1833, debut at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in London. Aldridge was to Paul Robeson what Moses Fleetwood Walker was to Jackie Robinson, a color-barrier-busting pioneer too far ahead of his time. Aldridge stepped in to play Othello after Edmund Kean collapsed in the middle of a performance a few nights before.

In his Othello costume of gold cloak and white, ruffled, high-collared shirt untied to the middle of his chest, Aldridge is eager and yet nervous. He gets coaching tips for the occasion together with reassurance from the theater manager and old friend, Pierre Laporte (Eugene O'Hare). As Laporte leaves, the stage lights go down except for highlights on Lester, who in the instant is a crouching panther prowling and ready to pounce, eyes gleaming, mouth clenched in an intense sneer. He is not Lester. He is not, even, Aldridge. He is Aldridge's Othello, and we are attending that 1833 Covent Garden performance.

It is one of several transformative moments in London's Tricycle Theater production of the new play Red Velvet, currently making its North American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. The actor transforms and the stage somehow transforms, and we are suddenly and completely in that place and time in Shakespearean theatrical history. In this transportation, the audience transforms, too: a few minutes before, we were laughing at the overly dramatic stylings of early 19th century Shakespearean theater as Aldridge and the rest of the cast rehearse; now, we are transfixed, as Aldridge "concentrates all your attention only on the inner meaning of his speech… a highly truthful understanding of art, a deep knowledge of the human heart, and an ability to feel the subtlest spiritual movements indicated by Shakespeare and to bring them to life before the public—that is what constitutes the essence of his acting." Thus did a mid-19th century Russian critic write in a review of an Aldridge performance.

It's a transformative moment in the plot, too, for during the handkerchief scene we are watching, Aldridge's Othello physically attacks Desdemona played by Ellen Tree (who is played by Charlotte Lucas). Well, duh! But in the 1830s, such physical violence on stage was scandalous, especially as the actor playing Othello was a "natural" African, as the critics would say. "We were acting," Tree insists. "How do you know?" Charles Kean says warningly. "We were speaking lines from a play, for goodness sake!" she replies. At the time, though, Lucas's Tree herself was shocked when Aldridge grabs her, but she played along with the moment as a good actress would, and in Aldridge's dressing room afterward, the two practice how to make the physical altercation even more realistically spontaneous.

Other transformative moments of this play are more psychological than visceral. The audience is vocally disgusted with the era's racist reactions to Aldridge, from Charles Kean's barely disguised loathing—though he has myriad reasons—to the newspaper critics using the n-word and describing Aldridge as "Mr. Wallack's black servant" with "fat nose and thick lips." The institutional racism is obvious when the theater closes after two performances that the cast itself believes were artistic successes and enthusiastically received. Yet, this window into 1830s racism (Aldridge's Covent Garden debut occurred three months before Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act) turns into a mirror when Laporte tells Aldridge how he defended him before the theater board of directors: "I told them in the heat of the moment you lost yourself in the play, your true nature surfaced, and you descended into"—Laporte can't finish because Aldridge, his old friend, lands a hard right hook across his cheek. How many of us in the 2014 audience see such inner "blackness" when watching actors of color in Shakespearean roles. This being a mirror, take a quick scan of, starting with my description of Lester playing Aldridge's Othello above.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti further focuses this reflection by paralleling the racism that restricted Aldridge's career to the sexism that handcuffs Polish journalist Halina (Rachel Finnegan, who also plays actress Betty Lovell and Aldridge's wife, Margaret). "No one takes me seriously, and I'm really very serious," Halina says; she even describes the integration of the water closet, as she is the only female on the newspaper staff. She sees gaining an interview with Aldridge as her big break, though she has to use her sexual wiles to even get in his dressing room. This interview is not only thematic but serves as the play's important framing device, in which an elderly Aldridge is preparing to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland (where he died in 1867).

Aldridge left his home in New York City to play the desegregated theaters of London. Yet, he only played twice in London, the first time in 1825, playing Othello in East London and Prince Oroonoko in A Slave's Revenge at the theater that would become the Old Vic. Otherwise, he plied his trade in UK provincial theaters, and when that work dried up, he toured Europe where his work was so acclaimed he received knighthoods and royal honors almost everywhere he went and a state funeral in Lodz. He tells Halina that he is the highest paid artist in Russia and his greatest triumph ever was Rybinsk, not Covent Garden. "They'd never heard of Shakespeare," he says of the audience crammed into the Russian theater. "Can you image that? Every time I raised my hand—they literally gasped."

In a passage that brought a "don't we know it" snicker from the St. Ann's audience, Aldridge calls Russians "an enduring people, but they got nervous leaders. Uneasy about who's lurking in the dark." His "Scottish King" was banned in Russia, he says. "Afraid it would give the people ideas. Birnam Wood coming to Moscow. That's the beauty of Shakespeare—he unnerves you."

That very idea is one of the subtle themes running through Red Velvet, one that in some ways is as relevant in the theater community today as is latent racism and persistent sexism. Call it Bardism. Even before they learn he's African-American, the company of actors learn that Aldridge is American, and that's a major strike against him right there. Though we see Aldridge's Othello as highly stylized, it is considered naturalistic by his colleagues—which gives you some idea of just how fake the others' acting appears during the rehearsal. "We are not a freak show you know," Charles Kean shouts in protest to Aldridge's method. "With acting like that we could be," Aldridge volleys in equal disdain of Kean's method.

As complexly and intensely played by Oliver Ryan, Charles Kean—famous Edmund's less-accomplished son, cast as Iago in the Covent Garden production—is an uptight traditionalist. His discomfort with Aldridge is partly borne of racism, but more of elitism: not just his position as the famous Kean progeny (though not a prodigy himself), and not just his self-view as obvious heir apparent to the starring role when his father goes down (though his father was involved in the decision to cast Aldridge as his replacement), and not just his sense of place in society (though the acting profession was still considered less than reputable), but also his sense of being the guardian of classical theater. When Tree argues that what Charles calls "groping" is "very Othello," he shoots back, "That's very fashionable Ellen—the play is still relevant! Hurrah for the domestic style; may classical drama turn in its grave." The St. Ann's audience snickered knowingly at that line, too.

Unspoken but obvious to us is the definition of "classical" theater. The full spectrum of Kean's attitude toward Aldridge—the whole of which Ryan bottles up in his festering portrayal—needs some extra-textual perspective. In later years, Charles Kean bucked his father's emotional-based portrayals by staging the plays as historically accurate pageants of morality and social manners. His view of Shakespeare as high art dogs us to this day. Yet, likewise we are dogged by the antipurist "traditions" that came into favor a hundred years later. To the 1833 Covent Garden cast, "classic Shakespeare" was the work of Garrick, Macready, and the elder Kean, and Aldridge's naturalist, psychological reading was revolutionary—though in Red Velvet, Aldridge and, eventually, Tree keep pointing out that they are merely following the text. "Classical Shakespeare" to our generation has come to mean the contextual trappings of the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and many a theater clings to that concept even as their aging audience slips away while younger audiences are being captured by the natural, psychological readings of the true text.

It's instructive that Aldridge essentially was banned in the bastion of Shakespeare classicism that was New York and London and embraced by audiences who were new to Shakespeare. Even today, these same bastions and a couple others are stuck in a sense of Shakespearean classicism that is not just Bardist but sexist and, yes, racist, too. Quick, name a Hamlet or Henry V of color you have seen in a major Shakespearean theater production. Red Velvet, in fact, demonstrates theatrical racism in that, before now, you probably had never heard of Ira Aldridge—I hadn't. Clearly, he was one of Europe's most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the mid-19th century, yet we don't mention him in the same breath with Macready, Kean, and Booth.

Director Indhu Rubasingham keeps the world of this production of Red Velvet firmly in the theater. As designed by Tom Piper, the limits of this world are make-up stations flanking both sides of the stage, and when not on stage themselves the cast retreats to their stations, often watching the center-stage action (the exception is during the actual performance of Othello). Scene transitions are choreographed movements, practical in the way the actors move furnishings and change Lester's costumes, but thematic in the way they regard Aldridge in their expressions and postures with mixtures of disdain, respect, discomfort, even in the comport of Connie, the Jamaican servant (Natasha Gordon). She tells Aldridge she didn't like his Othello, not because of his performance but because of the part itself: "Why you kill your wife on the back of such careless talk?" she asks. "It's common sense, though, sir, marrying into that world's a mistake. Can't trust no one."

Aldridge in later years with mottled robe, his right hand held up as he talks to somebody over his right shoulder, a desk gas lamp and dressing table mirror behind him
Ira Aldridge (Adrian Lester) gives an interview to a Polish journalist near the end of his career in the Tricycle Theatre production of Red Velvet at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. Aldridge was one of the pre-eminent Shakespearean actors of the mid-19th century, but he gained his acclaim in Continental theaters as racism kept him off the London and New York stages. Photo by Tristram Kenton, St. Ann's Warehouse

Among a solid cast, Lucas gives a standout performance in the way she plays Tree as an actress who is always performing—even in private—but yet very human. She indeed puts art ahead of all, and though the black actor is a curiousity to her, she readily accepts and respects the talented Aldridge as her co-star. Her most honest moment is when Aldridge grabs her unexpectedly during the performance of Othello, and in Lucas's eyes we see shock followed by sudden resolve to ride it out while ever staying in character. She really is Desdemona here even as she becomes, for an instant, the real Ellen Tree.

Lester's performance is all-consuming brilliance. He's coming off an award-winning portrayal of Othello at the National Theatre in London, but I'm not sure how much that matters because it is Ira Aldridge's performance of Othello we see in Red Velvet. His off-stage Aldridge juggles outward confidence with inward nervousness, and we see him break down only with the prospect of going jobless and becoming penniless, the real fear of a black man in the supposed center of civilization who is respected by whites only for the in-demand skill he has (I wonder if Othello had a similar worry). The elder Aldridge is more a prima donna, but he is old and frail.

In yet another physical transformation, the transition from Aldridge being fired at Covent Garden to his final act preparing for King Lear in Poland happens on stage. Aldridge's 34 years of wearying travel and constant work passes for us in mere seconds and all in the form of Lester's altered physicality. He's also mentally breaking down, even as he's applying his makeup for Lear. One of the most celebrated actors of his era is hounded by the demons insinuated upon him by a society who see his skin color as demonic. With this, we get our final image of Ira Aldridge costumed and made up to play Lear. In white face.

Eric Minton
April 2, 2014

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