THOUGHTS: Red Velvet at the San Francisco Playhouse

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly*) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano*) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre.

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre. Photo Credit: Ken Levin

It is difficult to adequately portray in words the magnitude of the moment African-American actor Ira Aldridge appeared on stage at Covent Garden in the title role of Othello in 1833 London. Aldridge took over the role over from a dying Edmund Kean (who played Othello in brownface), an actor considered at the time to be the greatest interpreter of Shakespearean tragedy on the British stage. While Aldridge had already made a name for himself in smaller theatres and regional theatre, an actor of African descent on the most noted stage of early 19th century London, playing a dramatic lead role, moreover a romantic lead role opposite a famous white actress, was groundbreaking.

To put it into historical context, Aldridge was born to free parents in New York at a time when slavery was still being “phased out” in the state, and it would be another 30 years before the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War would end slavery in the US in all states. He emigrated to Europe for the greater opportunities afforded to black actors there, but this by no means meant equal opportunity. The slave trade had just been abolished in the British Empire in 1807, the year Aldridge was born. At the time of his 1833 Othello performance, there was rioting in the London streets in opposition of the Slavery Abolition Act, which would end slavery in the British colonies. In spite of the immense talent and skill that gained him praise from many critics and peers, including Edmund Kean himself,  Aldridge still battled gross racism as a performer in 19th century London. One reviewer claimed that it was physically impossible for his African mouth  to properly pronounce Shakespearean dialogue. Indeed, upon being cast to replace Kean as Othello, Aldridge faced published threats to  “drive him from the stage he has dishonoured, and force him to find in the capacity of footman or streetsweeper, that level for which is colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.”  Arguably, Aldridge risked both his professional reputation and his personal safety to take on the high-profile role of Othello at Covent Garden in the political charged climate of early 19th century London.

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly*, right) discusses his opening night performance with a servant, Connie (Britney Frazier*)

Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) discusses his opening night performance with a servant, Connie (Britney Frazier). Photo Credit: Ken Levin

While the magnitude of Aldridge’s achievement may be difficult to portray in words, theatre itself is the perfect medium to do so, and British playwright Lolita Chakrabatri has done a service in bringing his remarkable story to the stage. The chance to see this seminal historic moment recreated is reason enough to go see Red Velvet at the San Francisco Playhouse. A second reason is that Carl Lumbly is outstanding in the lead role. It is a pleasure both to watch him bring Aldridge to life, and to watch him play Othello as Aldridge. The latter is no mean feat. It requires portraying the magnetism, presence, and skill Aldridge would have to have had to have the success he did. It also requires interpreting a famous Shakespearean role as Aldridge would have done in the style he would have performed it in 1833, while modulating when and whether he would temper the performance as Aldridge had been asked to do by those who feared a realistic performance of an interracial onstage romance. It is a testament to Lumbly’s skill as an actor that I would have gladly watched an entire play-within-a-play of Lumbly playing Aldridge performing Othello. Lumbly was aided by a solid supporting cast. Particularly notable was the subtle but important performance of Britney Frazier as Connie. Connie, a maid, is the only other person of color in the room when Aldridge is interacting with his white castmates, and she serves as silent commentator throughout many of the scenes through body language and facial expression.

Playwright Chakrabarti is a RADA trained actress, and you can see the actor’s point of view in the story she chose to tell, from her interpretation of the force of personality it would take to gain the respect Aldridge had in international theatre, to her portrayal of Aldridge as an acting-style barrier breaker, whose realistic approach intersected with the racial backlash he faced in performing opposite white, 19th British theatre sweetheart Ellen Tree. I wish there had been more exploration of the political milieu of the time (Aldridge was historically was known to give anti-slavery speeches at the end of his performances) but I understand the argument that his rich life story gave the playwright enough material for several plays and choices had to be made.

The play is at its best when Aldridge/Lumbly is on the stage, and this is perhaps why the opening scene of the play, featuring a Polish journalist getting flirty with the stagehand who snuck her into Aldridge’s dressing room  seemed to run a little long. That’s a minor quibble–while sometimes exposition heavy, the conceit of the time-jump interview that bookends the story of Aldridge’s Covent Garden debut  pays off in the final scene of the play where we get to see an older Aldridge perform what would be his last Shakespearean lead role, King Lear, in whiteface.

Red Velvet is a moving and engaging look at a piece of history rarely portrayed on the stage and well worth going out of your way to catch in its final week of performance.

Reasons to go:

#DiversityOnStage . This is a fascinating play highlighting barrier-breaker Ira Aldridge and featuring a stellar performance in the lead role by Carl Lumbly.

#DiversityOnPage. Interviews clearly indicate this play was a passion project for British born actress-playwright of Bengali descent Lolita Chakrabarti, and she fought to get this story told.

#DiversityBehindTheScenes. Director of color Margo Hall takes on the challenging task of directing a contemporary play while also directing scenes with a play as they would have been acted in 1833. I also particularly noticed her elegant and interesting transitions between scenes—which is always a hallmark of thoughtful and creative theatrical direction.

Who should go: Everyone. This is a poignant and powerful play appropriate for all ages. And if you love Shakespeare and theatre history you are especially in for a treat.

Tips:

  • The theatre is right off of Union Square. It’s a quick walk to the Powell St. Bart (or numerous buses) if you don’t want to park in the city.
  • Grab a drink or some food before or after the show at the theatre bar. You can also order something ahead of time for intermission.
  • The San Francisco Playhouse theatre space is lovely and very intimate. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house.
  • The theatre is on the 2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. If you’re coming from further away you can treat yourself to a night in the city and you won’t even need to exit the building to see a fabulous piece of professional theatre.
  • There is some construction in front of the theatre—keep an eye out for signs and enter through the hotel.

Themes: theatre history, black theatre history, British theatre history, racism, diversity on stage

Show information:  Red Velvet is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse until June 25th.

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