Red Velvet, the real life story of actor Ira Aldridge at Chesapeake Shakespeare

by Angela Carroll

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene.

In the early 19th century, Ira Aldridge, an African American actor and playwright, was performing on European stages. A fraction of Aldridge’s miraculous story is portrayed in director Shirley Basfield Dunlap’s wonderful adaptation of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, Red Velvet at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. 

It is astounding to consider what Aldridge was able to accomplish thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1833, Aldridge became the first non-white actor to play the leading role of Othello, the moor at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in London.

We are introduced to Aldridge in 1867, backstage at a performance of King Lear in Lodz Poland; he is aged, hunch-backed, caned and in poor health. Christian R. Gibbs portrays the elderly Aldridge as a bitter, moody man whose movements are pained and burdened. “Macbeth weighs heavy on me”, he groans. Aldridge is agitated and jittery; he sits for short periods then frantically jumps up and paces around the small dressing room. His rants, often toward his assistant Bernard Warde (Dave Gamble) are intercut by violent coughing fits. Gibbs is unflinching in his portrayal of Aldridge, a man consumed and tortured by his memories.

Desperate for a real story, ambitious journalist Halina Wozniak, McLean Jesse, who speaks fluent Polish in the role, sneaks into Aldridge’s dressing room and attempts to interview him. It is obvious from their interactions that she is inexperienced and intimidated by the tenacious Aldridge. Their humorous banter eventually resolves when Aldridge reluctantly gives in to Wozniak’s incessant inquiries about his time as a performer with the Theatre Royal in London.

The lion’s share of the play unpacks Aldridge’s brief experience as a performer with the renowned London company.  Audiences are transported back to 1833 as the cast of Othello discusses the sudden illness of Edmund Kean. Kean, a white actor who played Othello in black face, collapsed on stage mid-performance. The unexpected event prompts the theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Yury Lomakin) to replace Kean with Aldridge. Only one of the cast members, Henry Forrester (Seamus Miller) knows that Aldridge is African American. When he arrives, the cast is shocked.  This scene sets the stage for the subtle and overt aggressions Aldridge will face while working with the Theatre Royal. The scenes between Aldridge and Charles Kean, the son of Edmund Kean, are especially strained; Kean’s racist distaste for Aldridge is palpable. However, the cast soon recognizes Aldridge’s genius and passion for acting and warms to the idea of working with him. As the play unfolds, the play reveals many heart wrenching revelations that will torment Aldridge for the rest of his life.

Though the play is contained to two sets, both in the backstage of theaters, the beautiful set design and overall production of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company makes you feel like you are sitting in the seats of the original playhouses, observing the rehearsal and performances of timeless works. 

Some of Red Velvet’s most memorable moments are in the ensemble’s performance of scenes from Othello.  The theatre is dimmed; the only light that remains is the warm flickering glow of small lanterns placed at the front of the stage. The actors perform as they would have on an English stage over one hundred years ago, expertly trained in the recitation of Shakespearean verse and anchored by thick red velvet curtains.

Red Velvet is haunting because it is based on some of the real traumas and victories Aldridge experienced. Gibbs’ performance as Aldridge is intoxicating and heartbreaking. The true success and power of the performance lies in the portrayal of Aldridge as an ardent dreamer who defies all odds, to remain passionately consumed by his ambitions to perfect and evolve the craft of acting. Red Velvet is a stunning work about power, prejudice and the transformative power of art.

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Shirley Basfield Dunlap. Production Manager, Kyle Rudgers. Production Stage Manager, Alexis E. Davis. Set Designer, Timothy J. Jones. Technical Director, Lighting Designer, Daniel O’Brien. Costume Designer, Kristina Lambdin. Cast: Christian R. Gibbs as Ira Aldridge, Seamus Miller as Casmir, a stagehand and  Henry Forrester, McLean Jesse as Halima Wozniak, a Polish Journalist, Betty Lovell, and Margaret Aldridge, his wife, Dave Gamble as Terence, Aldridge’s valet and dresser and Bernard Warde, Laura Rocklyn as Ellen Tree, actor, Ron Heneghan as Charles Kean, actor, son of actor Edmund Kean, Tracy Farrar as Connie, the theatre’s servant, Yury Lomakin as Pierre Laporte, theatre manager. Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

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