Ira Aldridge might not be a household name. But if you follow Chicago’s annual Black Alliance Theater Awards (which honor the best work by African American talent in Chicago area productions, and are to be handed out on Oct. 17) you might know they are co-titled “The Ira Aldridge Awards.” That is in tribute to the black actor who began his career in New York in the early 1820s, and soon emigrated to England where he forged a formidable reputation, and, in 1833, made history by performing the role of Othello at Covent Garden after the fabled Edmund Kean fell ill. Not surprisingly, Aldridge met with racial discrimination all along the way, but he went on to perform for many years, particularly in Shakespearean roles, throughout Europe.
‘RED VELVET’ Recommended When: Through Nov. 27 Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Tickets: $38 – $46 Info: http://www.raventheatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission
It is this chapter in theatrical and racial history that is captured in “Red Velvet,” the play by Lolita Chakrabarti (a British playwright of Bengali heritage), whose husband, Adrian Lester (a British actor of Jamaican heritage), starred in the original London production in 2012.
Now in its Chicago premiere at Raven Theatre, under the direction of Michael Menendian (who did such a superb job with last season’s “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys”), the production features outstanding turns by Brandon Greenhouse (a “Scottsboro Boys” alum, who should unquestionably play Othello in full at some point) as Aldridge, and the nuanced and confident Tuckie White as Ellen Tree, the very English (white) actress who played opposite him as Desdemona. It also has its ear to the ground, echoing many of the current controversies about casting, race, “authenticity” and the theory of acting itself.
The play begins and ends in 1867 in a theater in Lodz, Poland, where Aldridge, now 60, irritable, and close to death, is planning to play King Lear. Barging into his dressing room to interview the famous actor is Halina Wozniak (Sophia Menendian), a ferociously determined youngjournalist who clearly wants to transcend the many barriers against women like herself, just as Aldridge broke down racial barriers. The device seems more than a little forced and heavy-handed, but so be it. (It is worth noting that the umbrella title for Raven’s 2016-2017 season is “Breaking the Rules.”)
Flash back to 1833 and Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, at the very moment the debate about abolishing slavery in British overseas territories was at its peak. Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler), the “free-thinking” Frenchman who manages the theater, makes the bold decision to have Aldridge replace Kean in the role of Othello. The actors are more than a little startled when he arrives, for while his stellar reviews are known, many seem surprised to realize he is black. Particularly outraged is Kean’s son, Charles (Tyler Rich), who expected to inherit the lead role, and Bernard (Scott Olson), an older actor with conservative views. Utterly delighted is Henry Forester (Tim Martin), an enthusiastic young actor.
What Aldridge finds on stage is an “Othello” being performed in “the teapot style,” with everyone gesticulating and telegraphing their feelings rather than playing in the more modern, naturalistic way he favors. At first, Ellen Tree is tense and skeptical of the changes he wants to initiate, but she grows to like the challenge, and also finds herself attracted to Aldridge. (There is some tense interplay between her and Aldridge’s devoted young wife, Margaret, also played by Menendian (who plays a young actress in the company, as well).
But things really go wrong when Aldridge not only receives grossly racist reviews, but is accused of showing “no restraint” — words that are less a commentary on his proto-Stanislavski acting style than a coded racist slur in synch with the Othello story itself.
Much of the acting in the Raven production suffers from a bit of the “teapot style” itself. And the characters in Chakrabarti’s play too often sound like convenient mouthpieces for the playwright — including the Jamaican-born servant, Connie (a deftly jaded Anna Dauzvardis), who knows all too well how the system works for blacks, women and the underclass in England. Nevertheless, Aldridge’s story is a fascinating one, and well worth learning about.