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Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Moor’s Last Sigh in Red Velvet

Posted By on Tue, May 17, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) perform as Othello and Desdemona at the Covent Garden theatre.
At one point in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet, a white actor reads the N-word aloud. Even though he recites it from a newspaper article and isn’t using the word himself, the audience uttered audible “ohs”. The theatre critic who employs the word to describe Chakrabarti’s protagonist, the historical figure Ira Aldridge, doesn’t make an appearance, but several of his surrogates do. England’s — and by extension, this country’s — culture of entrenched racism is the subtext running throughout the play’s 19th century setting.

Red Velvet tells Aldridge’s story from two vantage points in time. The play is bookended by scenes from the end of his career. While the heart of the play takes place on the eve of The Slavery Abolition Act 1833. When Aldridge (Carl Lumbly), an African American actor, arrives in England to perform the lead role in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello, he’ll become the first person of color to act on the British stage.


click to enlarge The cast of Red Velvet. - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • The cast of Red Velvet.
Some of the actors in the company are vocally opposed to slavery. But when rehearsals begin, their liberal ideals are pushed to the limit as they watch a black man embrace a white woman, even fictionally, in public. That antiquated taboo shocks an audience from the 1800s — but holds no frisson for Northern California theatre-goers. How then does the playwright convey this disconnect?

The burden of proof relies largely upon Lumbly’s affecting portrayal. His hopefulness in 1833 parallels and contrasts with his despair in 1857 at the end of his life. We’ve seen where that sorrow, disappointment and hurt comes from. When Aldridge is fired after only two performances as Othello, he gives a passionate defense of his portrayal to the director. In this speech, Aldridge makes one thing clear: he thinks of himself first and foremost as an artist. But the argument is un-winnable because of his skin color. This blunt confrontation with white prejudice and white power shapes the rest of his acting career.
click to enlarge Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) reflects on becoming the first black actor to play Othello on a British stage in an interview with reporter Halina Wozniak (Elena Wright). - KEN LEVIN
  • Ken Levin
  • Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly) reflects on becoming the first black actor to play Othello on a British stage in an interview with reporter Halina Wozniak (Elena Wright).

There’s a highly diverting scene of an awkward rehearsal when Aldridge arrives (a black actor!) to the surprise of an unsuspecting cast. The farcical situation is brilliantly executed. Susi Damilano, in particular, as the actress Ellen Tree, projects an intelligent wit. There isn’t a movement or a line reading from her that feels false: Damilano appears to be in her natural element when she’s on stage.

Although this moment of levity drew laughter from the audience, Red Velvet is nothing if not a tragedy. Chakrabarti demonstrates exactly what’s at stake — artistic and financial freedom — when someone is excluded because of their race. She provides Aldridge with a final monologue that deserves a camera eye’s close-up. It’s as cinematic an ending as Glenn Close’s final scene in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The social segregation of a race transforms one man’s gift into a loss, his artistic isolation into an understandable madness.

Red Velvet, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post, 415-677-9596.


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