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‘Red Velvet’ depicts forgotten part of theatrical history

By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review

Theatergoers with knowledge of Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) looked forward eagerly to the March 30 Old Globe opening of Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 London play “Red Velvet.”

Albert Jones appears as Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet.” (Photo by Jim Cox)

Aldridge, who has a San Diego theater company named for him, was a great African-American actor who in 1833 became the first to play Othello au naturel on the London Stage.

Prior to Aldridge, Othello was usually played by white actors in black face, and the London critics were so cruel that it took a century before another African-American actor (Paul Robeson) assayed the role.

Robeson’s appearance (he even had an affair with his Desdemona) proved that though society and acting styles had changed, people still had a hard time accepting a white woman being married to and murdered by a black man.

“Red Velvet” is set when acting styles were stand-and-deliver with enormous hand and arm gestures, very stylized and on the verge of changing to something more realistic, a technique employed by Aldridge.

Hired by company manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan) to replace Covent Garden actor Edmund Kean, who had collapsed onstage, Aldridge surprises the unprepared Theatre Royal Covent Garden company with his complexion, this at the time when the monarchy had just effected the freeing of slaves in the British colonies.

Written and re-written (for Chakrabarti’s actor husband, Adrian Lester) over more than a decade, the play encompasses a dizzying array of additional themes, none of which prevails and supports the evening. The story would have been enough. Dare I say I was not the only one who went home disappointed and overloaded?

(l to r) Sean Dugan as Pierre Laporte, Albert Jones as Ira Aldridge, Monique Gaffney as Connie, Allison Mack as Ellen Tree, and Mark Pinter as Bernard Warde in “Red Velvet” (Photo by Jim Cox)

Despite the success of the iconoclastic “Hamilton,” history does not always translate easily to theater. In the case of “Red Velvet, this is not the fault of director Stafford Arima (“Allegiance”); nor can one fault the fine company he has assembled; nor the expressive scenic design of Jason Sherwood, which seems to capture the ephemeral nature of the art form.

The role of Aldridge is powerfully played by Broadway, regional and television actor Albert Jones, whose classical experience serves him well. He is exceptionally handsome with a virile and well-employed body, a bit like the coiled spring that is Othello.

His Desdemona, played historically by Ellen Tree, is appealingly played by Allison Mack. Kean’s son Charles (John Lavelle), who is offended by Aldridge’s presence and thinks that he should have played Othello, quits the role of Iago.

Despite Aldridge’s taking change and imparting new ideas, not always diplomatically, about Shakespearean acting, the other actors fall under his charismatic spell and are as hurt and disappointed with the critical response as Aldridge himself.

Following the devastating 1933 London reviews, company manager Laporte is forced to close the production for financial reasons, leaving Aldridge to ask, “What ever shall I do?” Aldridge had left his native U.S. as a teenager, intent upon furthering his classical career, which he did indeed, but not in the way he expected. It was too soon then, and even too soon for Robson a century later.

The historical truth, represented in the play by book-end scenes in Poland shortly before Aldridge’s death (he is playing Lear in a touring production) is that after his Covent Garden premiere, Aldridge spent the rest of his life playing Shakespeare on tour, earning great popular acclaim, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia.

He always intended to return to America and was scheduled to do so in 1867, but died before the time came.

Other actors in 1933 London and 1867 Poland include Michael Aurelio, Maureen Gaffney, Amelia Pedlow and Mark Pinter.

Despite its length and sprawl, how could the Globe not program this work, which deals with such a forgotten part of theatrical history?

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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