Ira Aldridge, a Black American-born actor from the 19th century, was the highest paid artist in Russia of his time, knighted in Britain, and received the Pour le Mérite award from the King of Prussia—just a few highlights from his lustrous career in Europe. Yet, “Red Velvet,” the drama based on Aldridge’s life, does not explore his many successes. Instead, this serious play, currently presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, depicts the groundbreaking but tragic episode when Aldridge became the first Black actor to lead a show on a premier London stage, but performed just two nights as Othello before racist backlash closed the production.
A powerful cast packs the performance with nuance and emotion…serious and high-caliber, dramatic theatre…
Near the end of his life, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom) is on tour, preparing to perform in the titular role of “King Lear” when a young and stubborn Polish journalist, Halina Wozniak (Tro Shaw), pushes into his room for an unsanctioned interview. Stumbling onto sensitive ground with her personal questioning, she pries into his infidelities and out-of-wedlock children, as well as his short run decades earlier at the Covent Garden Theatre in London, provoking Ira’s angry backlash. With the set spinning back to that fateful time in London, we meet the Covent Garden Troupe, short their leading man since acclaimed actor Edmund Kean has fallen ill. His pompous son, Charles Kean (Jaye Ayres-Brown), is outraged to learn that a Black American has been recruited to assume his father’s shoes and perform opposite his fiance Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest), who is cast as Desdemona. Against the advice of his friend and colleague, Pierre Laporte (Michael Glenn), Ira, charismatic and confident, pushes the troupe to new interpretations and styles of acting, oblivious to the cruel reception that awaits.
A powerful cast packs the performance with nuance and emotion. Cheatom, in the leading role, delivers new soliloquies and well-trodden Shakespeare with equal elegance. Shaw, triple cast as the ambitious Halina Wozniak, ditzy Betty Lovell, and demure Margaret Aldridge, brings distinctive mannerisms to each character, aided by wigs designed by Danna Rosedahl. Connie (Shannon Dorsey) provides a foil to Ira Aldridge as a Jamaican maid. Divided by class privilege, where Ira is naive, outspoken, and forceful, Connie is quiet and world-weary. Dorsey brings a simmering anger to the role that commands attention, even when her character is often silent. Glenn also deserves praise for his sympathetic performance as the hypocritical Pierre, who declares “Theatre is a political act, a debate of our times.”
“Red Velvet’s” technical design is classically splendid. An opulent King Lear costume sits outside of the sumptuous red curtains before the show, just one of the glamorous period costumes by Rodrigo Muñoz. The set, often swathed by fog in You-Shin Chen’s scenic design, turns to reveal three settings: a theatre dressing room adorned in ample red accents, London’s Theatre Royal stage, and a parlor. A mix of strings, piano, and bells score the transitions between set pieces, designed and composed by Karin Graybash. Lighting by Yuki Nakase Link is unsubtle, but still effectively punctuates reveals.
If you’ve been longing for serious and high-caliber, dramatic theatre, “Red Velvet” will quench that thirst. Although viewers would certainly benefit from a familiarity with Shakespeare, particularly “Othello,” it’s not critical to enjoying the show. Tied together by classic technical design and a terrific cast, director Jade King Carroll delivers an excellent play, overcoming multiple pandemic interruptions.
Run time: Two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
Age rating: 13+
“Red Velvet” runs through July 17th at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. Tickets are available online.