3 Stars out of 4
The true story of Ira Aldridge, the immensely talented American actor who was the first Black to play Othello in London is a tale we should know. It is an important story to tell: before there could be a Paul Robeson there needed to be an Ira Aldridge. He opened many doors. In his prime he was one of the most well-known and highest paid actors in the world and when he died he received a state funeral. There is even a bronze plaque for him at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford on Avon. . Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s luscious new production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s acclaimed play Red Velvet makes sure we leave the theatre knowing a part of his story, and also that systemic and vicious racism was alive and well in nineteenth century London even as progressives were debating the abolition of slavery. There, as here in America, freedom from bondage does not naturally become equality, and a thoughtful look at the history of systemic discrimination is timely. This is pithy important theatre shining a spotlight on a narrative that is unfamiliar.
The play begins in Aldridge’s last years, and a female reporter has parlayed her appeal with the stage manager into a visit to his dressing room to interview him. The steely cub reporter (Annie Purcell who also plays Ira’s first wife Margaret) is trying to use this coveted interview as a way to move her own fortunes forward—she wants legitimacy just as Aldridge did as a young actor in London. We cut back to his 1833 debut in Othello and then back to 1867.
Dion Johnston’s portrayal of Aldridge is revelatory: at turns impetuous and young, hopeful and ambitious, then an imperious old lion, always relevant and moving. Director Gary Griffin has chosen to present the show in the round bringing us more intimately and literally into Aldridge’s circle. The gorgeous gathered red velvet curtain that conceals and reveals as part of the spare but lovely scenic design by Scott M. Davis almost becomes another compelling character. But the script drags. As much as I enjoy hearing the various minor character’s stories, and as well played as famous actress Ellen Tree ( the open hearted Chaon Cross) and Pierre LaPorte (Greg Matthew Anderson as a convincing French impresario) are, their long expositions sent us off on side stories without connecting us with the main narrative. Chakrabarti gives full back stories to the women in his life and work but in doing so slows the trajectory of the evening. We are left sobered at the struggle but not illuminated by a clear message. I do believe there is much more of Aldridge’s life to be told, and this version is well worth our time and intention. This show is fuel for intense post theatre discussion.
Red Velvet is running at theChicago Shakespeare Theatre’s Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier Tuesday through Sunday until January 18, 2018 .For tickets and information go to www.ChicagoShakes.com or call 312-596-5600 or go to https://www.theatreinchicago.com/red-velvet/9549/