Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Red Velvet
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin

Also see Susan's review of To Kill a Mockingbird

Amari Cheatom
Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography
Too often, historic moments do not reveal themselves until long after they happen. To established Shakespearean actors in 19th-century London, the idea of a Black performer playing Othello was so absurd as to be unthinkable–until Ira Aldridge made his debut at Covent Garden in 1833–and it still took time for the public and the critics to look beyond the color of his skin to see his true talent.

In Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Red Velvet, now in the intimate Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, Amari Cheatom embodies Aldridge at both the beginning and the end of his three-decade-long career. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti uses the actor as her focal point in an examination of a British society confronting change: proper gentlemen living off the revenues of their Caribbean plantations while ignoring the realities of the slavery that supports those operations, and the general belief that following the status quo is always better than taking risks.

Director Jade King Carroll has staged the play with elegant timing and forethought, framing the actors on You-Shin Chen's shifting scenic design (including a red velvet stage curtain) and creating striking tableaux under Yuki Nakase Link's atmospheric lighting design. The eight actors glitter in Rodrigo Muñoz's elaborate costumes.

Cheatom is magnetic in his power, first as the elderly actor preparing to play King Lear in Lodz, Poland, shortly before his death in 1867, then flashing back to his London premiere. Edmund Kean, the pre-eminent Shakespearean actor of his day, had become seriously ill and would soon die; Pierre Laporte (Michael Glenn), the manager of Covent Garden, knew Aldridge's work in the provinces and brought him in to play the Moor of Venice.

Among the supporting cast, Jaye Ayres-Brown excels at depicting Charles Kean, son of Edmund, as a privileged brat with no patience for people he considers lesser beings, and Emily DeForest is radiant as Ellen Tree, the actress who plays Desdemona opposite Aldridge.

Special mention must be made of Kimberly Gilbert, brought in on short notice when actress Tro Shaw was unable to perform. Even while carrying pages of the script, Gilbert was captivating in three widely varied roles (including different accents and languages, costumes, and wigs) and easily kept pace with the rest of the company.

Shakespeare Theatre Company's Red Velvet runs through July 17, 2022, in the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 Seventh St. NW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-547-1122 or 877-487-8849 or visit

By Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Casimir/Henry Forrester: Samuel Adams
Charles Kean: Jaye Ayres-Brown
Terence/Bernard Warde: David Bishins
Ira Aldridge: Amari Cheatom
Ellen Tree: Emily DeForest
Connie: Shannon Dorsey
Pierre Laporte: Michael Glenn
Halina Wozniak/Betty Lovell/Margaret Aldridge: Tro Shaw