In the year of 1833, riots erupted in London’s streets regarding abolishing slavery throughout the British colonies, and debates were ignited concerning a young African American Shakespearean actor by the name of Ira Aldridge. He was a man who was faced with struggles to achieve progress in a world of racism and prejudice.
“Red Velvet” is a play written by Lolita Chakrabarti to evoke discussion regarding diversity and inclusion. It is based on an actual person by the name of Ira Aldridge (Dion Johnstone). The play is set in Lodz, Poland, in the year of 1867 where we get to meet Ira in his theater dressing room where a reporter (Annie Purcell) determined to get her story coerces the now 60-year-old actor to look back upon his acting career.
The audience is transported back in time 34 years with Ira Aldridge to the turbulent backstage of Theatre Royal where it all began. One crucial decision and an opportunity of a lifetime sent shockwaves through the streets of London in the nineteenth century because theater manager Pierre Laporte (Greg Matthew Anderson) asked Ira to play the role of Othello. Previously, Othello had been played by world-renowned Edmund Kean, who was the most excellent actor of his age until he collapsed on stage.
Fellow cast members did not want to work with Ira Aldridge in fear of how London would react to his performance. Charles Kean, the son of Edmund (Michael Hayden), called for practical reasoning and asked that Pierre place him in the prominent role; however, being persuaded by Pierre and with the backing of Edmund himself, the actors agreed that the show must go on and decided to continue with Aldridge as the lead.
Adverse reactions from London’s theater critics emerged quickly because they thought Othello was billed as promoting the abolition of slavery, which was heavily debated in Parliament at the time. Outraged by a Black man playing a role of a White man, appalled by his aggressive nature and the touching of a White woman, the theater leaders tell Pierre that Aldridge needs to be removed and the theater will go dark (no performance) for the first time in centuries.
The friendship of Pierre and Aldridge becomes strained while Aldridge tries to convince Pierre to fight with him to force them to continue with him as the lead, however, Pierre becomes infuriated that Ira never listened to his advice.
The play continues with Aldridge, this once trailblazing actor, who is now a feebly sick older man, reminiscing about what could have been.
Ira Aldridge was indeed a very accomplished actor performing in plays around the world, however, he has been forgotten as a great actor of his time. This is due primarily because of theaters in New York refused to allow Black actors in the 1800’s to play prominent roles, so Aldridge relocated back to London hoping the world of the stage would be open to him.
He was again saddened to find that London also closed its doors to Black actors and he was forced to take roles in the British provinces and Eastern Europe.
Dion Johnstone plays the lead role of Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet and he was magnificent. His overwhelming yet passionate presence moves across the stage like a graceful swan that elegantly draws your attention to his skillful theatrical greatness. He captured the very essence of Aldridge to where you believe you have traveled back into history to witness this dramatic performance and struggles of this gifted actor.
Chaon Cross was exceptional in her role as Ellen Tree. Her wit and strong will amalgamated remarkably with Johnstone. She is a natural talent that quickly transforms into any role, which made her great as the legendary Ellen Tree.
We must also pay homage to Greg Matthew Anderson and his masterful performance of Pierre LaPorte, who is making his Chicago Shakespeare debut, as well as Annie Purcell as Halina. She was very good and funny. We can only hope to see more of her acting skills in Chicagoland theaters. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention Tiffany Renee Johnson, who played Connie, and is another Shakespeare newcomer people should notice. Her small part in this play should not be overlooked for she has leader role talent.
Award-winning director Gary Griffin returns to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre with a cast of performances that brings a genuine realism of acting at Theatre Royal in an intimate setting for the audience. Griffin has produced such great plays as “The Color Purple” and “The Apple Tree” and is a ten-time Jeff Award winner, and he hasn’t disappointed us with “Red Velvet.”
We highly recommend going to see Chicago Shakespeare’s “Red Velvet.”
RED VELVET By Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed By Gary Griffin
December 1, 2017 –January 21, 2018
The cast includes:
Annie Purcell (Halina)
Jurgen Hooper (Casimir)
Roderick Peeples (Terence)
Dion Johnstone (Ira Aldridge)
Tiffany Renee Johnson (Connie)
Bri Sudia (Betty Lovell)
Roderick Peeples (Bernard Ward)
Jurgen Hooper (Henry Forester)
Michael Hayden (Charles Kean)
Chaon Cross (Ellen Tree)
Greg Matthew Anderson (Pierre LaPorte)
Annie Purcell (Margaret Aldridge)