Whoever coined the term “must-see” could only know what a must-see is if s/he had just seen British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play, "Red Velvet." The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s splendid premiere production is timely in view of the heightened awareness of racism, thanks to the movement Black Lives Matter. Everyone must see it for its powerfully moving message. It will change you and, if you’re a bigot, it will effectively shame you into reforming.
Why is this story unknown?
The sophisticated work commemorates an intriguing and noteworthy episode that could have changed theatrical history, when African-American Ira Aldridge ascended to the stage of the legendary Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1833’s London.
The playwright ingeniously pits the backstage drama surrounding his groundbreaking appearance there against Shakespeare’s most intensely heightened domestic tragedy, "Othello." This drama-within-a-drama renews the notion that art imitates life.
When famed actor Edmund Kean falls seriously ill, his acting company suddenly needs a replacement Othello. His son Charles fancies himself the likely heir of that mantle, but company manager Pierre Laporte says he and Edmund already settled on Ira Aldridge. Charles’ ensuing tantrum sadly has little to do with this imagined sleight; it has everything to do with ugly racial bias.
Lindsay Smiling is utterly volcanic as Ira Aldridge, the actor whose immense talent the “finest” people of 19th-century London couldn’t detect, blinded by intolerance. Connie, the ever-present yet seldom-speaking backstage servant, tells him in perfect Jamaican inflection: “They will see what they be lookin’ for.” Shannon Harris (debut) makes the most of subtle gestures, and admirable self-control when her character’s “betters” behave atrociously.
The character you love to hate
It’s hard to say David Andrew Macdonald performs spectacularly “well,” because he really makes you detest his character’s odiously bigoted, abhorrent behavior. Character and actor thus blur together. If there were an award for the actor to most make you hate your own race, then he certainly wins hands down.
Victoria Mack as actress Ellen Tree is the best at bad acting—a talent not to be underestimated—when rehearsing Shakespeare’s Desdemona. Ellen keeps one wondering, Is she truly as racially tolerant as she seems, or does she do her best acting in projecting open-mindedness when interacting with her black leading man? Every now and then, the tiniest movement, something almost undetectable in the eyes, seems to betray her. She certainly keeps everyone guessing.
As both the fluent German-speaking Polish reporter Halina Wozniak and the very white, frail, British Margaret Aldridge, wife of Ira, Sofia Jean Gomez is endearing and chameleonic. She has perhaps the most poignant line, which she delivers in perfect Polish accent, about her father’s approaching demise: “Ve live near train, and sometime vhen train goes roaring by and blows vhistle, I scream, so no one hears me.”
Managing the unmanageable
David Foubert, as company manager Pierre Laporte, and Lindsay Smiling are electrifying in the play’s most gut-wrenching scene, when Pierre and Ira’s long-standing friendship totally ruptures. In explosive, high-decibel, hurricane-force exchanges, their raw dialogue is frightening, disturbing. When thrown to the floor and about to be struck by Ira, his line “This is who you truly are!”, is psychologically shattering. Mr. Smiling perfectly conveys its nearly catatonic effects throughout the lengthy final scene change.
Did you know?
When Lolita Chakrabarti’s play premiered in London, husband Adrian Lester portrayed Ira Aldridge and later got himself nominated for an Olivier (Britain’s Oscar).
Hurry, the last performance begins at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.