By Ruth Ross
When the Smithsonian Institution's new National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, DC, this fall, it may contain an exhibit about Ira Aldridge, the famous black Shakespeare tragedian. Then, again, it may not. For although he is American, Ira Aldridge made his career after 1827 largely on the London stage and later in Europe, dying in 1867 Łodź, Poland.
Now, in a departure from its usual fare, the esteemed Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey introduces this unknown man of the theater to local audiences in an elegant, eye-opening, (very) topical production of Lolita Chakrabarti's original play, Red Velvet, now receiving its New Jersey premiere in Madison.
While "topical" may seem an odd term to describe a play whose action occurs in mid-19th century, many of the criticisms leveled at the first black American President are similar to—if not the same—those expressed about Ira Aldridge. In addition, the "horror" at a black man's physical onstage involvement with a white actress recalls the 1968 hullaballoo over British pop music star Petula Clark's innocent, natural touch of Harry Belafonte's arm on her television special. When the vice president of Chrysler, the show's sponsor, objected to the "interracial touching" because it would offend Southern viewers (and car buyers, presumably) and demanded a retake, Clark and the show's producer refused, destroyed all other "takes" and delivered the tape to NBC with the physical touching segment intact.
Unfortunately, Ira Aldridge had neither the clout nor professional standing to make such a grand statement. Chakrabarti focuses on his début at Covent Garden Theatre in 1833 when he was brought in by his friend, theater manager Pierre Laporte to replace the ailing tragedian Edmund Kean in the role of Othello. Appalled by the grand, declamatory style of acting then in favor, he suggests a more natural approach so that Desdemona (played the leading actress of the time, Ellen Tree), upon landing in Cyprus after being separated from her husband Othello for weeks, actually looks at him when she greets him. Warned by Laporte to "take it slowly" and avoid pushing his style and personality on the actors (and the audience), Aldridge nevertheless plows ahead, engaging Tree in some solitary post-performance tweaking that gets him in hot water and leads to his ultimate dismissal from the company.
Chakrabarti frames this pivotal moment in Aldridge's life with a flashback set in Łodź where a young female newspaper reporter gains entry into the actor's dressing room and asks him some very pointed questions, leading to his "reminiscence" of the time he played Covent Garden for a very brief time. The technique is both economical and enlightening, giving the audience the information as to what happened to Ira Aldridge's career after he was so summarily fired and how it affected him for the next 35 years of his life.
Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte is to be commended for unearthing this theatrical gem of a play and bringing it to New Jersey audiences. Her direction is spot-on, allowing Lindsay Smiling as Aldridge to soar with the heady anticipation of his debut, only to fall with a thud when his friend abandons him with personal and professional dismissal. Monte never milks the story for melodrama; it always feels natural and convincing, due, in large part, to the fine performances she elicits from her actors. She is to be commended, too, for the seamless scene changes conducted with alacrity by actors and suitably attired stage hands.
As always, the cast on the stage of the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre successfully flexes its dramatic chops. Lindsay Smiling's magnificent Ira Aldridge is a man of great confidence in his ability to play Shakespeare, whether it be Othello or Lear. Even when Laporte literally throws him out of Convent Garden, he maintains his dignity while appealing to his friend's better nature, which makes his predicament all the more poignant. As the theater manager, David Foubert (above, left with Smiling) is a fine match for Smiling. His excitement at bringing his friend to the London stage is palpable, as is his anguish at having to accede to savage reviews expressing sentiments similar to the Chrysler VP and the theater board's express wishes that he let him go. Foubert's Laporte obviously wrestles with the professional and personal demands of the job. The climactic scene involving the two men is powerfully emotional, a real struggle of wills, that leaves both men personally bereft.
On the distaff side, a luminous Victoria Mack shines as Ellen Tree, intrigued with this exotic—in looks and demeanor—actor and willing to try acting in a style so different from the one she's been used to, even if it means incurring bruises on her arms during the choking scene. Given confidence by Aldridge, she stands up to her overbearing fiancé Charles Kean (played with appropriate arrogance and pomposity by David Andrew Macdonald, below left) and is unafraid to spend time alone with Aldrich in his dressing room as they work out blocking for that fateful encounter. Sofia Jean Gomez is superb as the Polish reporter Halina Wozniak and Margaret Aldridge (right, with Smiling), earnest as the former, elegant and loving as the latter. Her German in the opening scene is impeccably uttered with a vehemence matched in her English exchanges with Aldridge. And our learning early on that her husband has had a child by another woman informs the nobility of affect in Margaret's attitude toward him after his début performance. Gomez really is a joy to watch; we should see more of her.
Minor roles are performed with equal proficiency. Garrett Lawson is perfect as the nervous stagehand Casimir and the annoyingly eager actor Henry Forester . Savannah DesOrmeaux giggles like a Valley Girl as ingénue Betty Lowell, and John Little is a perfect obsequious gofer Terence and dyspeptic character actor Bernard Warde. Finally, in a role that requires her to do little except stand there smiling as the white actors blithely discuss the end to slavery (which came to Great Britain in 1833!) as though she's not there, Shannon Harris's black servant Connie really sparkles when she opens up to encourage Aldridge to remain true to himself, no matter what the consequences. (Above, Garrett Lowell, Savannah DesOrmeaux, John Little, Victoria Mack and David Andrew Macdonald await news of who will substitute for the Edmund Kean in Othello.)
The play's title, Red Velvet, refers, of course, to the traditional theater curtains draping the stage that scenic designer Bethanie Wampol has made an integral part of the play itself. Burke Wilmore 's lighting (note the "gaslight" covers on the front of the stage) and Monte's sound design transport us to a 19th century theater, especially the tinkling piano music accompanying scene changes. And Paul Canada has employed luxurious costumes appropriate to the theater and fashion of the time.
Above all, Red Velvet, with its literate script, natural dialogue, taut conflicts and dynamic characters, is a fine piece of theater. But its political and social resonance cannot be overlooked, especially when, to Laporte's avowal that his dismissal is not political, Aldridge thunders, "Everything is political!" Of course it is.
Red Velvet will be performed by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Ave., on the campus of Drew University in Madison, through September 23. It is suitable for teenagers, so don't hesitate to bring them to a performance for a bit of theatrical, social and political history presented in a polished, professional production. For more information or to purchase tickets call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.
NOTE: it is interesting to note that Victoria Mack and Lindsay Smiling starred as Desdemona and Othello in a previous STNJ production of the play!
Photos by Jerry Dalia.