Thursday, May 18, 2017

Red Velvet is Riveting

Telling the long-lost story of Ira Aldridge, Red Velvet pulls you into a narrative of heartbreak and perseverance. 

Photo by John Heimbuch

Sometimes, things can be distilled into simple essences. Red Velvet, the latest production from Walking Shadow Theatre Company at the Southern Theater, could be summed up simply with: what would you do if there were no obstacles in your way?

That is the question facing Ira Aldridge, a giant of classical theater (especially Shakespeare) and one of the first true international African American celebrities. Treading the boards in the first half of the 19th century, Aldridge crossed the Atlantic from his New York birthplace (preceding so many other great black artists, like Josephine Baker, James Baldwin and Nina Simone) to make his way as an actor in Europe. Landing in London in 1824 (where slavery was already illegal, decades before the U.S. finally got its shit together on that front), Aldridge made quite a name for himself and drew large audiences, particularly in eastern Europe and Russia when he began to tour. His hard-won success was not free of obstacles, however. Many reviewers and theater boards treated Aldridge with disdain at best and outright racism at worst.

This tension between Aldridge's talent and box office success and the theater world's regressive attitude towards non-white (and even non-male) performers is at the heart of Red Velvet, which imagines the story of a deeply scarring experience Aldrige had performing Othello at the Covent Garden theater in London. The script will make you recoil with horror and disgust, particularly in the reading of actual reviews of Aldridge from his performances in the 1830s and discussion of Aldridge's perceived "flaws" by fellow white actors when he's not in the room. It's hard to watch, but it's important: statements made in this setting maybe a little balder than what we hear today, but they are by no means gone, and it's a worthwhile exercise to see such conversations laid bare on stage.

Portrait of the real Ira Aldridge by William Paine

JuCoby Johnson anchors the cast as the volatile Ira Aldrige. With a Donald Glover swagger, Johnson leads several riveting interactions, particularly in his initial engagements with his fellow performer Ellen Tree (played by Elizabeth Efteland). Efteland perfectly inhabits her role of strong Victorian virtue, providing a calm and persistent foil to the racist tendencies of the other cast mates. Ty Hudson is absolutely vile as Ellen's fiancee Charles Kean, and does an excellent job of humanizing (and making horrifyingly relatable) all of Kean's ludicrous objections to Aldridge's place. Sulia Rose Altenberg impressively masters many accents in several key supporting roles, chief among them the beset Polish reporter Halina, whose insatiable curiosity and determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession sets the whole story in motion.

Andy Schnabel is bombastic as theater manager Pierre Laporte, and lends the only true check to Aldridge's passionate play. Bear Brummel is heartwarming as the ahead-of-his-time Henry Forester, showing that history is often more complex than we allow it to be and that heroes can come in many stripes. Michael Lee is perfectly cast as the self-important Bernard Ward, with a dry British delivery that brings Red Velvet some sorely needed laughter. And Kiara Jackson is wonderful as the maid Connie, the show's most underrated character (seriously, I really wish we could have seen more of her) and who offers Aldridge the most sage advice he refuses to take.

The entire set stays on stage without changes, with Aldridge's touring dressing room at stage right, a vignette of the theater office at stage left, and the center left open for the actors to literally tread the boards. It's an efficient setup and allows the players to swiftly switch between time zones and locations. Some beautiful lighting from Jesse Cogswell provides literal walking shadows throughout the show, an effect that certainly lends a more Victorian aura to the piece. And costumes, designed by E. Amy Hill, are period-specific and thoroughly set the tone for the show.

Photo by John Heimbuch

Red Velvet was a pleasant surprise as it's a show I didn't know I needed to see. I always love seeing new stories find the stage, particularly ones about historical figures who are underrepresented or otherwise forgotten, and that of Ira Aldridge certainly fits the bill. This story also fits beautifully into the ongoing controversies about casting for roles on Broadway and beyond, a debate that has been ongoing for hundreds of years and is unlikely to stop anytime soon. It's a shame that the challenges Aldridge faced haven't changed nearly as much as they ought to by now, but the progress that has been made is encouraging and worthy of celebration. Red Velvet offers each of us an opportunity to truly look inside and determine: What are my preconceived prejudices? How am I preventing others from fulfilling their dreams? In what ways can I take a step back to help lift up new stories, right old wrongs, defend the downtrodden? Red Velvet is a great exploration of the nuances of allyship and racism, and a fascinating story to-boot. Make sure to stop by the Southern Theater to see Red Velvet before it closes on May 28. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.

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