This is the last weekend to catch the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s “Red Velvet,” a fascinating play about American actor Ira Aldridge, the first black man to play Othello on a London stage. Covent Garden, in fact.
Aldridge’s story is not well known and “Red Velvet” combines history and art for an entertaining — but sometimes emotionally painful — theater experience. Painful because of the bigotry and hate that denied him his due as a human being and a gifted actor.
Born in New York City in 1807, Aldridge joined a black theater company as a teen. Racial prejudice forced him to leave America to continue his career and he moved to England and worked on British stages and later toured Europe and Russia. “Red Velvet” centers on the public reaction to his London performance as Othello.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s two-act drama opens in 1867 with Aldridge (Lindsay Smiling) ambushed in his dressing room in Poland by a women reporter demanding to know why he’s touring provincial theaters on The Continent rather than playing Covent Garden. We are asking ourselves the same thing.
The reason is harrowing, and we don’t find out what it is until the end of this well-directed, well-acted work by the theater’s artistic director Bonnie J. Monte. And the title? It’s a reference to the plush red velvet curtains most theaters employed at the time to separate the stage from the audience. Once raised, magic happens. And that as true here as well.
To answer the question, time shifts back to 1833 London,specifically the afternoon of the night Aldridge is to step on stage in the title role of “Othello” as a last-minute replacement for the great English actor Edmund Kean who was ill.
Kean’s son Charles (David Andrew MacDonald) who expected to replace his father, is astonished to hear from producer Pierre Laporte (David Foubert) that will not happen. When Aldridge appears they discover the actor is black. The cast is aghast, particularly Charles whose pride is not hurt as much as his prejudice is unleashed. He sputters. He gestures. He stalks around saying it’s obvious why this casting is impossible. Charles insists Laporte cancel the evening performance and fire the American. Laporte declines, and has the backing of his father Edmund.
Not only is Aldridge black, he subscribes to a more natural acting style, more realistic than the highly melodramatic style then popular with English actors. They face the audience, use exaggerated gestures and recite their lines rather than deliver them with passion. It reminds one of America’s early 20th-century silent movies.
(There is the belief that Aldridge’s natural style of acting may have influenced those who came after him, including Constantin Stanislavsky. Aldridge was especially popular in Prussia and Russia and was honored there by heads of state.)
When Aldridge suggests he work on a pivotal scene with Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), his Desdemona and Charles wife, Charles leaves the stage, unable to watch. Aldridge asks Ellen to face him, look into his eyes, and touch. When he grasps her hands, everyone gasps at the audacity and the novelty.
But the other actors (played by Savannah DesOrmeaux, John Little, Garrett Lawson) slowly warm to Aldridge and that night’s performance was well received by the audience with a standing ovation. The actors even think he was good, although there were concerned Aldridge may have been too physical as Ellen has a bruise on her wrist, which she dismisses as nothing.
The critics? Well, they hated it and are cruel in their commentary. One writes his “monkey lips” make it impossible for him to speak correct English. Another, he “pawed” Desdemona. It was “indecent,” “improper” and call him a “nigger,” African novelty, and allude he enjoyed strangling a white woman during the death scene.
Things get worse. Charles plans to file assault charges for his wife’s bruises. Ellen share a post-performance glass of celebratory champagne with Aldridge in his dressing room and doesn’t attend the opening night party. Well, there’s only one thing that could have happened, right?
For me, the best scene of the play is the argument between French producer Laporte and Aldridge after the actor learns “Othello” will close immediately as the Covent Garden board would rather have a theater dark making no money than continue sold-out performances starring a “nigger.”
Laporte and Aldridge are friends and have worked together before. The producer had warned the actor earlier in the play he must go slow, be patient, let white London audiences get used to him and his style of acting. But Aldridge didn’t. The argument turns briefly physical. It’s not just the money Laporte will lose, it’s the lack of respect. Aldridge’s need to prove himself outstrips concern for his friends’s business and reputation.
The story returns to that dressing room 34 years later and the reporter has her question answered. Aldridge sits at his makeup mirror preparing for his performance that night as King Lear, applying white face makeup.
“Red Velvet” is at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave., Madison, through Sunday. For tickets and more info visit shakespearenj.org or call 973-408-5600.
How the play was conceived and its 10-year voyage to its London premiere, click here.
Ira Aldridge is among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.