Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Red Velvet: Another Generation and a Dream Deferred

It's a particular kind of tragedy when you see a man's dream slip through his fingers because the world, in all it's selfish, small-minded ways, is not ready for him.  As often as not, he does not have the time to wait for the world to catch up with him and that loss is enormous. It is this sentiment that drives so much of the cutting, emotional drama in Lolita Chakrabarti's biographical play of Ira Aldridge.

In 1833, Ira Aldridge was a young African-American actor who was given the chance to play Othello in Covent Garden when the lead actor Edmund Kean, falls ill.  Kean, a famous white actor of the day, traditionally performed the role in blackface.  In this unexpected turn of events, company manager Pierre LaPorte (Eugene O’Hare) announces Aldridge is to take to the stage with an all white cast.  Chakrabarti sets up the story in flashback.  We first see Aldridge as an aging actor in the 1860's. He has been touring Europe as Lear, playing to Kings and commoners.  He's accosted by a young female journalist (Rachel Finnegan) in his dressing room in Lodz, Poland who asks him why he has not returned to the West End in thirty years.  We then move back in time to what happened during that West End run.  We watch as LaPorte breaks the news to Kean's acting company that Aldridge will be Othello.  Ellen Tree (Charlotte Lucas) is to play his Desdemona despite being awkwardly engaged to Edmund Kean's son Charles (Oliver Ryan) who has not been elevated into his father's role of Othello but in fact is being kept in his original role of Iago.  This casting shocks critics and the conservative sensibilities of English society.  Chakrabarti sets the play against the backdrop of the abolition of slavery movement in England and echoes of protests over that fill the streets.  Even the theater company is divided by Aldridge's presence, with some horrified by a black man "pawing" the white leading lady in his performance, others welcoming the march of progress, and the Jamaican maid who serves the Kean company weighs in with her views of whether Aldridge is acting properly or not. 

Adrian Lester makes clear his reputation as a dynamic stage actor is well-earned. He fluidly moves between performance in the style of 19th century actors doing Shakespeare and maintaining a convincing American accent during scenes of Ira's life. He ages 30 years through posture and cadence (It was like suddenly his face had wrinkles where there were none before).  But the quiet moments where he confesses his vulnerabilities, his fears, and his self-doubt is where he truly shines.  In these heart-wrenching scenes, he's not a crusader as much as a man who believes in doing the best work, and he wants so desperately to be respected and seen beyond the color of his skin.  His own personal drive, and the stumbling blocks to that drive, make for the grizzled and angry older man we meet at the start of the play who has been fighting this fight for his whole life.

For a piece that is largely heartbreaking, the supporting cast are leaned on to provide the comic relief. And the play offers moments where modern audiences are given room to laugh (at others and perhaps even themselves).  Despite the centuries that separate us and the unique events of this play, the issues of injustice seem no less relevant today as the streets of England again became the venue for outrage when an unarmed black man was killed by police.  Or in a theater where the "great" roles of the stage still remain largely the province of white actors. With the many contemporary articles about actors of color struggling to find work in England, this piece feels all the more needed.  What it means to provide theatrical escapism or whether an actor of color's presence in a show changes the way in which it is interpreted should not be a hotly debated issue today. But read the comments on any article about color blind casting (or don't, they are atrocious) and you'll get the sense that these issues are very much not about the past but are intrinsically linked to our present and future.

Director Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of London's Tricycle Theatre where the play had its premiere, uses the formalism of the period acting for comedy and to help transition between the past and the present for Ira.  I liked the open staging so that the actors never really leave the stage. The backstage drama remains always present and the faces of Ira's past never really disappear.  And much in the spirit of a traveling acting troupe, the actors in this company play multiple roles.  I thought the choice of having one actress (Rachel Finnegan) perform three roles (Ira's wife, the journalist who tries to interview him in his later years, and an actress in the Othello company) ended up being a little too much. I would have liked to have had the link between Ira's present and past with one actress playing the wife and journalist. But the third confused things.  Lucas is delightful as the diva of her day but with an edge of curiosity and risk-taking.  Ryan has the difficult job of portraying the sniveling younger Kean and unfortunately just felt over-the-top.  The flashback structure perhaps spent too much time at the beginning setting up the gambit of the journalist hiding in the dressing room but as soon as we are brought back to 1833 it really clicks into place.  And when we leap again forward to the 1860's, the weight and power of the passage of time is even more strongly felt. 

In some ways the play feels a touch anachronistic because the storytelling is making a conscious effort to draw modern parallels but frankly I appreciated the contemporary lens on issues of the past.  This is not a stilted, moth-balled drawing room drama.  This is very much an acknowledgement of  Langston Hughes' festering dream deferred.    

There's a reason this play has had multiple sold-out runs in England.  It's an imperative. This dialogue about race and theater has to be had.  Rubasingham, Chakrabarti, and Lester have forged a piece that intelligently and emotionally has us confronting our role as a theater audience in how we interpret and deal with race on stage today. 

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