Who knew that one of the most popular Shakespearean actors of the mid-late 1800s was an African-American man who performed throughout the world? I hadn't heard of New York born Ira Frederick Aldridge until I attended Red Velvet. And that's a shame. Evidence of how education can be white-washed leaving gaping holes in even a solid liberal arts education.
Fortunately, Quill Theatre's official entry into the 2019 "Acts of Faith Festival" helps fill that knowledge deficit; just one of the reasons theatre is so important to a well-rounded education.
Red Velvet by playwright Lolita Chakrabarti is the story of Ira Aldridge and the price of being a black actor in the mid-1800s. Facing discrimination in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to England and built his impressive career throughout Europe. In Europe too, however, Aldridge faced suspicion and prejudice. He paid a heavy emotional price for his celebrity.
While Red Velvet is not specifically a play about religious faith, Artistic Director James Ricks writes "You don't have to be a history professor to recognize that for an African-American man to pursue this course at this particular point in history is in itself an act of faith . . . "
Red Velvet is an essay on theatre and history and the courage of one man to pursue his dream against all odds.
Against the backdrop of public riots in the streets of London over the abolition of slavery, Ira Aldridge (Jamar Jones) steps in to the lead role in Othello after the great Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean has collapsed on stage. The replacement is met with fury by Kean's son, Charles (Cole Metz), who believes the role should be his by birthright. The rest of the cast is bewildered at best. They question director Pierre LaPorte's (Eddie Webster) judgment in making such a controversial choice.
Even the servant Connie (Desiree Dabney), also black, keeps her distance and is skeptical of Mr. Aldridge.
The entire ensemble's performance was strong. I particularly enjoyed Jamar Jones' transition to King Lear toward the end of his career. Webster's performance as LaPorte was also strong - subtle and nuanced. And as a native German speaker, I give a special shout out to Stevie Rice (Casimir/Henry) and Rachel Dilliplane (Halina/Betty/Margaret). I'm not always able to understand when actors attempt to speak German, but I understood every word.
The heart of the play is the interaction of the cast and Mr. Aldridge as they wrestle with their prejudices. The genuine on-stage connection between Aldridge and actress Ellen Tree (Frances Saxton) proves particularly vexing to the sensibilities of the more proper cast members.
Ricks' choice for the "Acts of Faith Festival" is unexpected. And it works. Theatre ought to educate, and I admire his choice to broaden the definition of faith.
Quill's production of Red Velvet is a thoughtful and relevant reflection of the importance of theatre in continuing to break new ground - then and now.
Performances continue through February 9, 2019 at Dominion Energy Center's Libby S. Gottwald Playhouse. For tickets call 804.340.0115.804.340.0115
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