Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Red Velvet
Walking Shadow Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's reviews of Charles Francis Chan Jr.'s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery and Little Wars and Arty's reviews of Intimate Apparel, La Bohéme, and Wit


JuCoby Johnson
Photo by John Heimbuch
Red Velvet is an intriguing play set mostly in London in 1833, the year in which two events involving race relations occurred in Great Britain. One was the passage of the Abolition of Slavery Act, which mandated the phased-in abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire. The second event was the appearance of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor, playing Othello on the stage of the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden. Born in 1807 in New York City, Aldridge immigrated to England as a teenager to be a serious actor, something not possible at that time for a black man in the United States. His first chance to play Othello was in 1826, but that was not on the London stage, no less at such a prominent venue. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti admirably shines light on this little-known convergence of theater and civil rights history. She also created a plum leading role for her husband, British actor Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in its 2012 London premiere and subsequently in New York. The play by is now being given its Minnesota premiere by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, presented at the Southern Theater.

Red Velvet takes the audience backstage at Covent Garden just after legendary actor Edmund Kean has collapsed on stage while playing Othello. It was a decline that led to Kean's death two months later. Kean's son, Charles Kean—an actor in his own right, though far less talented than his father, and who had been playing the villain Iago opposite the elder Kean—assumed that he would take over the lead. However, the theater's producer, Pierre Laporte, a Frenchman who had befriended Aldridge, believed that Ira would be far better in the role. And the public debates on the abolishment of slavery showed that London was ready to see this tragic character portrayed by a member of his own race.

The acting company is divided. Betty Lovell and Henry Forester, young and liberal, think it is an exciting change. Veteran actor Bernard Ward is firmly opposed, while Charles Kean is humiliated at being overlooked. Further, he is appalled that a black man will play Othello to the actress Ellen Tree's Desdemona, in no small part because Ellen is engaged to marry him. For her part, Ellen is open not only to working with Ira, but to his new ideas about "natural acting." Their rapport provokes tension between her and Charles. The show goes on, garnering cheers from the audience, but scorn from critics who reveal deep-seated racism. The London Times goes so far as to write about Ira, "Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English." Though the script requires Othello to be physically rough with Desdemona, one critic objects to seeing Ellen Tree be "pawed over by a black man." Clearly, to be "pawed over" by a white man in black face was acceptable. It is apparent to all that they are pretending. But if the man is actually black, how can one know what is acting and what is real?

All of this is silently observed by the backstage servant, Connie—a black woman—who takes in the arguments over race and representation between serving tea and pouring liquor—until she shares her own, well-masked point of view in one of the play's most powerful scenes. Then, after just two performances and complaints lodged by Charles, the governing board of Theatre Royal hastily meets and decides it cannot allow the controversy Ira's performance has stirred.

Red Velvetbegins and opens with a framing device in which we see Ira Aldridge 34 years later, preparing to perform in Lodz, Poland. Since the 1833 debacle at Covent Garden, he has not played London, but has drawn acclaim touring the continent, particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia. Ira is clearly growing weary with age. A young reporter connives her way into his dressing room, begging him to grant her an interview. She especially wants to know why he has never gone back to perform in London. As a woman, she is not taken seriously by her newspaper. An interview with the great Ira Aldridge could open doors for her. This prompts Ira to look back on his life, when the chance to play at Covent Garden was meant to open doors for him. The play follows, as described above, until the end, when we are back in Lodz, it is 1867, and Ira dresses to appear as King Lear, smearing white make-up over his black features and donning a frightful white wig. An unsettling final image shows his greatness diminished by the strictures of the time he lived in.

The framing device is somewhat difficult. It serves the purpose of letting the audience know that Ira Aldridge survived the tempest at Covent Garden to have a long and heralded career, but the play does not begin to hum until it takes us back to London in 1833. JuCoby Johnson, who is terrific as the young Ira Aldridge, shows the crankiness but not the weariness of the elder Ira, nor does his voice convey the gravitas of Ira's life experience. The reporter is shrill and hard to care for and, as played by Sulia Rose Altenberg, speaks with a thick accent that is difficult to understand. The end frame is more effective, perhaps because by then we have come to know and appreciate Ira, and it provides a more pointed ending for his story.

Fortunately, the bulk of the play is highly engaging and pulsates with energy. At its core, director Amy Rummenie creates rising tension about how things will play out. Even knowing the historical outcome, the way each character reacts to events and to one another commands our attention.

JuCoby Johnson's performance radiates the confidence and genius of Ira Aldridge as a young man. His Ira is passionate about his art, sincere in his efforts to achieve greatness, a bit of a seducer, a bit self-absorbed, and a bit arrogant, convinced that he is the one to bring about great change. Johnson has had an amazing string of performances the past few months, from a desperate former slave in The Whipping Man at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, to the young, troubled con man in Six Degrees of Separation at Theater Latté Da, and now as Ira Aldridge.

Elizabeth Efteland gives a compelling performance as Ellen Tree. She projects personal integrity that guides Ellen to do what she believes is right and be open to new ideas, even if it puts a wedge in her most intimate relationship. She comes across as bright, brave, and self-reliant. Ty Hudson's portrayal of Charles Kean also has the ring of truth, as a smug young man whose celebrated namesake has given him a life of privilege, facing the unfamiliar challenge of having to defend his ideas.

Andy Schnabel plays Pierre Laporte, using his jovial demeanor to work through the discord among the actors, but unable to summon the necessary firepower arguing against Ira when the tide begins to turn. Kiara Jackson, as Connie, says little more than "Yes, sir" or "No, ma'am" during most of the play, but when the time to reveal herself arrives, she delivers with contained power. Even when silent, you can see her listening, taking in everything without being noticed. The remaining seven parts, including the brief presence of Ira's first wife, are divided among three actors, all of whom fare well without making particular impressions.

E. Amy Hill has designed costumes that are suitable for the mid-19th century time frame and depict the distinctions among characters' status. The minimal set by Annie Henly provides the space for the scenes to play out. A red velvet curtain is draped across the Southern's proscenium, framed by its chiseled arch, which opens to reveal a segment of Othello effectively lit by Jesse Cogswell.

Red Velvet provides rich fodder for discussion. The play does not have a deep emotional impact, reaching out more to the intellect than the heart. That Aldridge's power was slow in bringing about change is borne out by the fact that it was almost one hundred years after his run at Covent Garden before another black actor, Paul Robeson, appeared in a major production of Othello. It is worth seeing for the fascinating historical moment it illuminates, and for strong performances by JuCoby Johnson and Elizabeth Efteland.

Red Velvet, presented by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, continues through May 28, 2017, as part of the Art Share series at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $20.00 in advance, $24.00 at the door, $12.00 students with ID, free for Art Share members. For tickets and Art Share information go to southerntheater.org or call 612-326-1811. For information about Walking Shadow Theatre Company go to walkingshadowcompany.org.

Writer: Lolita Chakrabarti; Director: Amy Rummenie; Set Design: Annie Henly; Costume Design: E. Amy Hill; Lighting Design: Jesse Cogswell; Composer and Sound Design: Thomas Speltz; Props Design: Sarah Holmberg; Accent Coach: Keely Wolter, Fight Choreographer: Meredith Kind; Assistant Director: Aurora Binsfeld; Assistant Lighting Designer: Leland Hogan; Production Manager: David Pisa; Stage Manager: Chandler Jordan Hull

Cast: Sulia Rose Altenberg (Halina/Betty Lovell/Margaret Aldridge), Bear Brummel (Casimir/Henry Forester), Elizabeth Efteland (Ellen Tree), Ty Hudson (Charles Kean), Kiara Jackson (Connie), JuCoby Johnson (Ira Aldridge), Michael Lee (Bernard Ward/Terence), Andy Schnabel (Pierre Laporte).


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