When historians point to a revolutionary moment in British theater, they most often focus on the “angry young men” of the 1950s — writers from working-class and middle-class families who boldly railed against traditional society. But another revolution occurred more than a century earlier when Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor, forged his career on the British stage and throughout Europe. Renowned for his performances of Shakespeare, Aldridge broke the mold, working in the theater from the 1820s until his death in Poland in 1862, and doing so at the very same time slavery was still in full force back home.
‘RED VELVET’ Recommended When: Through Jan. 21, 2018 Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Tickets: $48 – $88 Info: www.chicagoshakes.com Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
This is the subject of British writer Lolita Chakrabarti’s play “Red Velvet,” which debuted in London in 2012 (where it starred her husband, Adrian Lester), and which is now receiving a handsome Chicago Shakespeare Theater production directed by Gary Griffin and starring Dion Johnstone, an actor acclaimed for his work at Canada’s Stratford Festival.
It is easy to see why Chakrabarti was intrigued by Aldridge’s story, given the impassioned controversy now swirling around matters of racially and ethnically authentic casting (and many other issues). Her play often seems to be addressing those issues with more of a 21st century sensibility than a 19th century one, but the correspondences are obvious, and audiences can easily parse the differences. Meanwhile, she makes the case that Aldridge not only broke the color line in British theater (while suffering the most painful consequences), but also championed a style of acting that seemed to anticipate Stanislavsky and The Method.
The play begins and ends in 1860, as Aldridge, exhausted and ill, arrives in his dressing room in a Polish theater and prepares to play King Lear. His legacy, after decades of touring, is of utmost concern to him. And though confident of his talent, he remains haunted by the catastrophic event that transpired at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royale in 1833 when, as a young actor, he was tapped to play Othello, the Moor, replacing the mortally ill Edmund Kean, the celebrated (white) actor.
When Pierre LaPorte, the Frenchman who ran the Royale (the excellent Greg Matthew Anderson), announces he is replacing Kean with Aldridge, Kean’s son, Charles (a spot-on Michael Hayden), is more than displeased, for not only did he expect to step into his father’s role, but he clearly does not want his beautiful wife, Ellen Tree (Chaon Cross), who is playing Desdemona, to share the stage with the charismatic Aldridge. Of course the chemistry between Aldridge and Tree quickly becomes clear as the actor challenges his co-star to dispense with her stiff “teapot style” of acting, and attempt the greater spontaneity and naturalism he favors. She quickly becomes a willing partner.
Aldridge’s performance is immediately attacked in the most vicious racist terms in the press. His feverish enactment of the violent scene between Othello and Desdemona is condemned. And the Royale is closed, with Aldridge never to return there.
Johnstone’s performance is particularly remarkable for the way he makes the transition from a handsome, immensely self-confident young man possessed of a notable sense of freedom (and a theatrical daring he refuses to temper) to a bitter old man whose life on the road has taken a toll. The always radiant Cross is just bold and seductive enough to generate heat. And along the way there are solid turns by Jurgen Hooper (as a young actor who admires Aldridge), Roderick Peeples (as a businessman who defends slavery), Bri Sudia (as a supporting actress fearful of losing her job) and Tiffany Renee Johnson (as a black servant who understands exactly how things work). Annie Purcell plays Halina, the ambitious young Polish journalist who is treated in the most dismissive way by the elderly Aldridge, even though, not unlike him all those decades earlier, she feels discriminated against as a woman in a man’s world. Their encounter makes the point but feels overly contrived on Chakrabarti’s part.
Set designer Scott Davis has reconfigured the Chicago Shakespeare stage from proscenium to in-the-round, with a red velvet curtain signaling a shift from “real life” to the pivotal “Othello” performance, and Mara Blumenfeld’s lush costumes adding vivid color.
Though not the most subtle of plays, “Red Velvet” is a valuable exploration of a man who in many ways was ahead of his time.