Hop on New Jersey Transit’s Morristown line or jump into your car and speed out to Madison to see Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s production of Red Velvet, on stage through September 25. It’s a knockout! Directed here by STNJ Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte, Red Velvet was the breakout success for London playwright Lolita Chakrabarti in 2012, was nominated for numerous awards, and garnered two “Best New Playwright” awards for the author.
Based on a true story, Red Velvet describes the career of Ira Aldridge (played by Lindsay Smiling), an African-American actor who relocated to Europe in search of artistic and personal freedom. In 1833, he was invited to play the title role in Othello at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden. While audiences loved him, the critics were merciless, and he never played London again.
Actor Charles Kean (David Andrew Macdonald) refuses to perform with Aldridge and derides his more natural, emotionally true, and modern acting style. Charles’s fiancée, Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), understands and immediately adopts Aldridge’s approach. The play’s first act contains highly entertaining scenes in which the Aldridge style is contrasted with the affected, melodramatic style then in vogue, concluding with a key bit from Othello that demonstrates his technique’s tremendous power.
In the second act, the devastating reviews are in, and the conflict between Aldridge and his friend Pierre (David Foubert), who manages the company, comes to a dramatic, wrenching climax. Aldridge won’t temper his performance and the critics (and theatre backers) won’t countenance it. Chakrabarti has said the play is about personal fulfillment in the theater (never guaranteed), disillusionment, friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. It is, and all within an invigorating package.
The Covent Garden debacle takes place against the backdrop of England’s raging abolition debate. Red Velvet’s younger characters think slavery abhorrent; the older ones that cheap labor is the foundation of British prosperity. Further, though Aldridge and the younger actors believe “all theater is essentially political,” the others believe casting a black actor as Othello is going too far. Chakrabarti does not turn the play into a polemic, but provides useful context.
In real life, after the Covent Garden debacle, Aldridge became a much- admired tragedian and toured Europe extensively. Thus, Red Velvet begins and ends in a theater dressing-room in Łódź, Poland, in 1867, as a 60-year-old Aldridge prepares to play King Lear—in whiteface. Invading his privacy, a young Polish journalist (Sofia Jean Gomez) is determined to interview him; she makes the same plea for acceptance he might have made in earlier times. At one point, he caresses the red backdrop, musing that the velvet is like a “deep promise of what is to come.”