The loosely fact-based account of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on a London stage, is at first glance metatheatrical: it’s a play within a play, with actors playing actors. In director Jade King Carroll’s exquisite production by the Shakespeare Theater Company, the characters engage in an artful and unruly exchange about acting techniques, onstage intimacy, whitewashing and the civic purpose of theater.
These kinds of conversations in the rehearsal room have become increasingly common in recent years, even as this broader dialogue just catches up with Chakrabarti, who wrote the piece a decade ago. But the playwright makes such allusions skillfully without brandishing a heavy hand. In fact, the most obvious parallels between “Red Velvet” and today’s world can only be unintentional.
“Red Velvet” spotlights a groundbreaking black actor who played Othello
As Amari Cheatom’s Aldridge muses on Russia’s reluctance to recognize Poland’s autonomy – “They have nervous leaders worried about who lurks in the dark” – he might as well be talking about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. One character is outraged at the idea of a black American actor like Aldridge playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice after the impeccable John Douglas Thompson recently did for the Shakespeare Theater on the same stage as the Michael R. Klein Theatre. A line about English isolationism today reads like a veiled Brexit reference.
But most noticeably, this play about an actor pushed into a short-term role — with Aldridge filling in for Edmund Kean as Othello after the legendary actor falls ill — finds his own cast facing a similar predicament. Kimberly Gilbert performed with only a few days of preparation and still found her way as she filled in for Tro Shaw with aplomb on Wednesday night’s show while switching back and forth between different accents and languages, no less. Considering that the Shakespearean Theater production of Our Town recently ended a run where coronavirus issues prevented it from staging a single performance with the intended cast, the show must go on – Conspiracy of “Red Velvet” particularly relevant.
As for Cheatom, the actor amazed. He carries himself with grace and dignity, and offers a stage presence worthy of Aldridge’s cherished reputation. But it’s Cheatom’s palpable but restrained resentment, channeling the deep-seated inconstancy of an artist long plagued by prejudice, that makes his Aldridge such a compelling creation. Although the bulk of the play is set at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden in 1833, the 1867 prologue and epilogue allow Cheatom to further explore Aldridge’s dissolution.
The supporting actors are up to the task too. As Pierre Laporte, the manager of the Theater Royal, who bets his reputation on Aldridge’s exploits, Michael Glenn perfectly embodies the fickle nature of allyship. Emily DeForest plays the genius Ellen Tree, the Desdemona of Aldridge’s Othello, with an appealing blend of courage, humor and curiosity. Jaye Ayres-Brown is deliciously off-putting as Kean’s son Charles, showing entitlement through over-the-top attitude, reductive rhetoric, and finally a full-on tantrum. Samuel Adams and David Bishins skillfully embody “Othello” actors on opposite sides of the abolition debate, while Shannon Dorsey plays maid Connie with understated outrage.
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Red Velvet also offers a sense of spectacle, thanks to You-Shin Chen’s opulent rotating set, which rotates from a dressing room to a drawing room and the stage of the Theater Royal itself. Making several clever lighting choices, Yuki Nakase Link moonlights Cheatom at the end of Act 1 before framing the cast in a stunning tableau in Act 2. The costumes, by Rodrigo Muñoz, are suitably lavish, and the sound design by Karin Graybash underscores the piece’s unsettling conclusion.
As Pierre explains in the first dispute over Aldridge’s casting, “Theatre is a political act, a debate of our time.” Chakrabarti professes this thesis, alluding to modern debate and injustice by ruthlessly opening up wounds of the past. Red Velvet, as it turns out, isn’t a celebration of an artistic trailblazer. It is a tragedy of intolerance.
red velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Jade King Carroll. Scenic design, You-Shin Chen. Costumes, Rodrigo Muñoz. Lighting, Yuki Nakase Link. Sound and Music, Karin Graybash. Wigs, Danna Rosedahl. About 2½ hours. $35-$120. Through July 17 at the Michael R. Klein Theater, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.