Red Velvet, Shakespeare Theatre Company

 Sometimes, it takes awhile. Ten years ago, Lolita Chakrabarti's play Red Velvet opened in London, and as with many a striking new play, the game begins- surely, it'll come to DC, but when? And performed by whom? The play seemed like such a natural fit for the Shakespeare Theatre Company, then still led by its founder Michael Kahn, but it never made it into a season during his tenure. When I read the play, I noted two things: you needed a powerhouse actor for the leading role of Ira Aldridge, the groundbreaking black American Shakespearean actor of the nineteenth century, and you needed the right director. At last, STC announced the play for its 2021-2022 season, and Chakrabarti's Red Velvet made the cut, so was it worth the wait?


Amari Cheatom in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography

I'll save you the long version: oh heavens, yes.


First, there's Amari Cheatom as Aldridge, who is exactly the charismatic, highly skilled actor able to conjure the magnetic historical figure in all of his glory and humanity, and with the grace and agility to pitch a performance that evokes older Shakespearean styles while still being accessible to the modern ear. We see him both as Alridge in his prime and near the end of his life, and Cheatom handles both deftly. The rest of the cast is excellent (and a special treat the day I attended was Kimberly Gilbert stepping in at the last minute to cover a trio of female roles), but Chakrabarti places the play's focus definitively on Aldridge such that other characters primarily serve to refract different elements of context onto the slice of life depicted in the play--two nights when Aldridge went on as Othello in an 1833 Covent Garden production.

 

Amari Cheatom and Emily DeForest in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracone Photography


Jade King Carroll's direction is likewise up to the task, leading the ensemble through the challenges of the play. The characters of the ensemble must convey and then perform adaptations of mid-nineteenth century Shakespearean acting in a way that both distances the audience enough to demonstrate how acting styles have evolved over time, while still creating enjoyable and arresting moments of theatre. Oh and also, they must do so while navigating a depiction of the racism of an empire growing towards its peak and the very real and personal effect it has on anyone without the luck to be a white, wealthy Englishman. It's hardly a spoiler to say that a black actor, no matter how talented and brimming with the marks of respectability, is not welcomed into a cast of white men and women with open arms. Chakrabarti's play is always clear about the injustice Aldridge faces, but also allows for nuance to shade each company member's responses, from outright hostility to the assumptions and mistakes of the most well-meaning, and King Carroll's direction gives the space for the audience to appreciate each note and distinction.  The play centers the ways in which Aldridge's life and career were shaped by his race, and rightly so, but King Carroll allows us to likewise feel the complex web that includes gender, class, nationality, and other factors that so inform the on and offstage world of the play.


The play's world is lushly rendered by scenic designer You-Shin Chen, with excellent use of the stage's revolve to give us both the grandeur of Covent Garden's stage and green room, alongside a beautifully appointed dressing room. Yuki Nakase Link's lighting design mixes tones beautifully, from the warmth of gas lamps to the stark footlights of the period stage, while Rodrigo Mu├▒oz's costumes bring all three worlds of the play to life, with beautiful period clothing for the characters of 1833 and 1867, as well as the  costumes for each diagetic performance.


Sometimes, it just takes awhile for a play to make it to a particular stage. This time, it's well worth the wait.



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