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Angela Carroll

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.

On manhood and memory: In Search of My Father

by Angela Carroll

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene

“Just what kind of man would abandon his son?” This is the central question writer/performer W. Allen Taylor has been asking in his twenty-year running play In Search of My Father … Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins now at Atlas Performing Arts Center.  

In Search of My Father is a reflective and meandering musical drama about Taylor’s journey to learn more about his father Bill Hawkins, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio. We learn about Hawkins through Taylor’s brief encounters with the people who knew him; friends, relatives, and intimates. Through their earnestly portrayed recollections, and Taylor’s wounded personal ruminations about his fathers’ absence, audiences explore mythologized and real narratives about Hawkins’ life.

Watching Taylor transform himself in Atlas’ intimate theater was a powerful experience. The actor stands alone on the stage in a simple shirt and slacks. Each time he addresses the audience we are introduced to a new character speaking from a distinct era within the 1950s into the mid-1970s. At times, Taylor is a small boy on a rocking horse, or a preteen who begs for his mother to tell him stories about his father. In other moments he is a young adult, an ambitious DJ for a college radio station, the aging matriarch of a Baptist church, or a cool jazzman.

Relying on very few props; a scarf and pearl earrings, a gray fedora, a cigarette and pool cue stick, Taylor personifies a host of memorable characters. An impressive dancer, in one scene he leaps from popular dances like the Hustle to the Jerk and in another he lovingly sings the ballad “Body and Soul”. Taylor’s skill as a performer is catching and helps to create the feeling that our journey through his memories is an adventure.

His father, we learn, broke through a longstanding color line. Until his hiring by Cleveland radio stations in 1948, media outlets and industries at large in Cleveland and across the nation fervently enforced segregationist and exclusionary hiring policies.

Taylor tells us that Hawkins’ decision to showcase emerging and established black musicians expanded their mainstream appeal, and radically shifted the landscape of broadcast radio. The wit and charm of Hawkins quick-talkin’ broadcasts sealed his fame. In Search of My Father honors Hawkins’ legacy and celebrates the music that catapulted his career. Taylor uses music to underscore the tensions and triumphs of the play, from Al Green to Aretha Franklin, Thelonious Monk to Billie Holiday, Big Mama Thornton and Mahalia Jackson, among others.

Taylor’s obsessive quest to learn about his father through the people who knew and loved him is illuminated by a series of intimate conversations. The dialogs he has with his mother are particularly resonant. Their talks evolve gradually from the curt banter of an elusive mother and a curious child to emotional admissions that propel the story forward. It is only after Taylor becomes an adult that his mother feels comfortable enough to tell him the truth, a revelation that is years too late to be of any use to her son. I was moved by Taylor’s quiet portrayal of his mother, always in the throes of a mundane task, the washing and drying of dishes, the mending of worn garments. His mother speaks from familiar domestic interiors, at the sink of her kitchen or sitting in the rocking chair of her living room. It is in those subtle moments, that Taylors’ performance becomes transcendent.

The play oscillates between Taylor’s exuberant desire to uncover more clues, and the crippling anger he harbors about having an absentee father. The anxieties Tayler feels but rarely expresses about his father are evidenced in his portrayal of himself as a stylized version of Hawkins’ unique broadcast persona. Both comical and cutting, the DJ directly confronts the resentments Taylor maintains about their nonexistent relationship. Taylor holds a vintage chrome mic in his hand, and leans in deeply over the booth towards the audience as he speaks, “You want to know why I cut radio loose,” he retorts to the unseen Hawkins, “because I didn’t want to be anything like you, Daddy-o!”

In Search of My Father offers a unique perspective on the power of reconciliation and forgiveness.


In Search of My Father: Walkin’ Talkin’ Bill Hawkins Written and Performed by W. Allen Taylor. Original Direction: Ellen Sebastian Chang. Set Design: David White. Production Manager: Klyph Stanford. Asst. Production Manager: Kristina Jackson. Lighting Design: Walter Holden andElliot Lanes. Sound Design: W.A.T. & Dustin Toshiyuki. Master Electrician: Aaron Waxman . Stage Manager: Elliot Lanes. Assistant State Manager: Norbert Thompson. Reviewed by Angela N. Carroll.