In 1833, London was embroiled over slavery in Britain’s colonies: after a revolt in Jamaica and pressure on the home front, Parliament instituted the Slavery Abolition Act. Enter Ira Aldridge (the excellent Ryan Vincent Anderson), a young African-American actor, to replace an ailing Othello at Covent Garden — and to expose, as the first black actor on that stage, London’s hypocrisies and bigotries. In the beautifully crafted comedic drama Red Velvet, on stage at the Theater at Monmouth, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti imagines what happened offstage at Covent Garden. Jennifer Nelson directs a dynamic and deftly performed production of the play, both an affecting portrait of Aldridge and an acute meditation on the politics and powers of theater.
Chakrabarti bookends that night with glimpses of an older Ira, about to play Lear. He stoops, coughs, and swats away a feisty young Polish reporter (Meghan Leathers). Compared with the aggressive reporter, a tightly wound German stagehand (Emery Lawrence), and his own worried Scottish assistant (James Noel Hoban), Anderson’s Ira is wry, lyrical, loose. His languidly delivered remark that last night’s moon was “like a bowl of milk — I wanted to drink it,” reveals his casual but powerful sensuality. Under the reporter’s questioning, this aged Ira circles ambiguities about why, since 1833, he has never again played Covent Garden.
Then it’s 1833: in a green room set with simple chairs and tea things, the actors of Edmund Kean’s Shakespeare company are arguing about slavery and who should take sick Edmund’s place as Othello. Company manager Pierre Laporte (Bradley Wilson) announces that Ira will step in. Most of the actors have never seen him, but much talk is made of his reviews, esteem, and purported sexiness. And then Ira arrives, is seen. The physicality of this moment is comedic — immediate dramatic gasps, stares, turned backs — but the emotional valence drops to the floor. Dignified, measured, unsurprised, Ira is no stranger to such reception, and you sense his fatigue, already, in dealing diplomatically with bias. As he presents himself to the company, Anderson masterfully calibrates Ira’s caution against his exasperation and rage, his passion and sensuality, and awareness of his own power and its limits.
We’re in the belly of the theater (upstage, a tall brick wall and ropes, a swath of red velvet curtain), and Chakrabarti, an actor herself, delights in the personalities and work of the theater tribe. The actors banter nimbly and deliciously, and scenes of the craft in action are revelatory. Working a scene with Ellen, the show’s Desdemona (Kelsey Burke, with careful nuance), Ira introduces impulse to a company grounded in formal tradition, and elevates the desires of Desdemona. “So I may play what I feel?” Ellen asks, beguiled. “How … avant-garde.” As they stop and start through the scene, eliciting shocked giggles and enraged outbursts from the rest of the company, they are an object lesson in the deep and humanizing intimacy of the act of performance.
Other theater debates that Ira stirs play out on several philosophical levels — does theater support traditional values or is it “progressive”? Should Ira act with gradualist “kid gloves” on an audience unready for integrated theater? — but always feel wholly grounded in the theatrical. This is an agile show physically, from the young reporter’s comic antics to fine, sexually charged subtleties as Ellen and Ira choreograph their strangling scene. Left alone together, Ira and Pierre (in Wilson’s hands, animated and mellifluously French) relax: In the unleashed heaving of their laughter, we understand their sense of intimacy and likeness — the passionate natures they both must tether in London, their shared perception of being outsiders. And watch the mere eyes of the Jamaican maid Connie (Maggie Thompson) as — powerless, carelessly treated, far less seen than Ira — she observes all this theater from behind the tea tray.
Expertly paced and pitched, Monmouth’s superb Red Velvet trains a savvy, clear-eyed gaze on a culture that does not yet act on what it professes to believe, and of an artist’s role in change — the power, the pleasure, and the toll.
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