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Review: RED VELVET Captivates on Opening Night at Shakespeare Theatre Company

The Shakespeare Theatre Company wraps up its 2021/2022 season with a truly brilliant production of Red Velvet.

Review: RED VELVET Captivates on Opening Night at Shakespeare Theatre Company

The Shakespeare Theatre Company wraps up its 2021/2022 season with a truly brilliant production of Red Velvet, playing now at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh through July 17, 2022.

Written by Olivier Award-winning playwright and actor Lolita Chakrabarti, Red Velvet explores the artistry and achievements of Ira Aldridge, a legendary Shakespearean figure who has largely been forced into obscurity in English and American history. As both a historical retelling of his life and an ode to his artistry, Red Velvet seeks to reinstate Aldridge, one of the first Black classical actors to achieve success on a global stage, in Western cultural memory of Shakespearean theater. Under the directorial chops of Jade King Carroll, who makes her STC debut with this production, the show emphasizes the incredible weight shouldered by those marginalized people who are determined to carve a space for themselves and the way global struggles for justice are intimately intertwined.

Red Velvet begins in 1867 in Poland, where Ira Aldridge--played by Amari Cheatom who gives an altogether enthralling performance--is set to perform as King Lear. The set, decorated as a dressing room, is opulent in reds and dark wood, and Lear's exquisite costume holds court on a mannequin. A young man and woman speaking German sneak on stage. The two appear to be taking a flirtatious jaunt about the theater, but when Aldridge discovers them in his dressing room, the woman reveals herself to be Halina Wozniak, a Polish reporter.

Halina (played by understudy Kimberly Gilbert who performed this role and two others excellently given the mere ten days she had to prepare) is eager to speak with Aldridge about his career and recent illness. Reluctantly, he allows her to ask questions as he struggles to prepare for the night's performance. As she fumbles her way through the interview, he becomes increasingly irate. When she continues to pester him about his two-night performance at Covent Garden Theatre as a young man and his refusal to return to London since, Aldridge's anger explodes and he forces her out of the room.

Alone, Aldridge drifts downstage as time rewinds thirty-four years, a turntable stage slowly revealing Covent Garden Theatre as it appeared in 1833. Aldridge drifts off and the theatre company arrives onstage amid the sounds of protests for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. While they wait in anticipation of news of that night's performance--their lead Edmund Kean has suddenly fallen ill and they are without an Othello--the group argues their differing opinions on the matter. Connie (Shannon Dorsey), a Jamaican servant at the theatre, attends to the actors' every beck and call as they debate. Her presence and restrained reactions to the unfolding scene offer an essential gravity to the drama.

Company manager Pierre Laporte, played with beautiful tenderness and charm by Michael Glenn, arrives with news: Ira Aldridge will play Othello in Kean's stead. When Aldridge (now 26) enters the company does not hold back their shock and, in the case of Charles Kean (Jaye Ayres-Brown) and Bernard Warde (David Bishins), their outrage.

It isn't difficult to imagine the backlash Aldridge would have experienced in this moment or the subsequent performances on Covent Garden's stage, particularly as such racism continues today. In the play, as in real life, Aldridge receives mixed reviews, many disparaging his performance purely on the basis of his Blackness. In one of the show's most powerful scenes, Connie says to Aldridge as she reluctantly hands him the day's papers, "I'm jus' sayin' people see what them a look fo'."

Amari Cheatom and Shannon Dorsey in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography
Amari Cheatom and Shannon Dorsey in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography

Regardless, Aldridge is nearly as critical of himself as the press. Certainly, he feels the weight of performing at such a renowned theater. With that comes the pressure of knowing that he is making history for himself and all Black actors amidst a time of monumental social unrest concerning the persistence of slavery in the British colonies. Understandably, he is determined to prove his talent. But after his second night onstage, Laporte informs him that the theatre's board has fired him, choosing to go dark rather than keep him on stage. With this, the play travels forward in time again to 1867 Poland where a 60-year-old Aldridge readies himself to perform King Lear.

Here, at the end of his life, Aldridge has experienced phenomenal success as a performer. He has played a pivotal role in spreading Shakespeare's work around Europe, bringing it to places that had never heard of it, effectively helping make Shakespearean literature the cultural force we know today. Given this history, it is no small role to take on as a performer, and it is an absolute treat to watch Amari Cheatom bring Ira back to life on stage. Cheatom's Aldridge is flawed, passionate, and determined, as tenacious and witty in his youth as he is proud and erratic in his old age.

Amari Cheatom in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography
Amari Cheatom in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography

Truly, all the actors shine in their roles. Jaye Ayres-Brown as the haughty and entitled Charles Keane and Emily DeForest as the driven and smug Ellen Tree stood out in particular. The richly decorated turntable set (Scenic Designer You-Shin Chen) and gorgeously detailed costumes (Costume Designer Rodrigo Muñoz) are icing on the cake. Shakespeare Theatre Company's Red Velvet is stunning in every sense of the word.

An essential element of Red Velvet that King Carroll's production brings to life is its insistence that global struggles for freedom are inextricable and ever-progressing, even while our personal experiences of injustice threaten to weigh us down. As Ira Aldridge makes history on Covent Garden's stage, protests against slavery break out across Britain and its colonies. As Connie waits on the members of the theater company, her family in Jamaica strike for emancipation. As Charles Kean rails against the thought of Black actors taking part in English theater, Ellen Tree reminds him that the same was once said about women. As Halina Wozniack interviews Aldridge, she does so knowing it is her chance to not only make strides for women in journalism but also to insist on the presence of Polish people under a Prussian and Russian government that refuses to admit their existence. It is an invaluable reminder to keep fighting, to keep making history.

Red Velvet is now playing at the Michael R. Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh through July 17, 2022. Run time is 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Purchase tickets here.

Header Photo: Amari Cheatom and Emily DeForest in Red Velvet by Teresa Castracane Photography.




From This Author - Morgan Musselman

Morgan Musselman is a writer/reader living in Washington, DC. After receiving her B.A. in English Literature from the University of Iowa, Morgan moved to DC and began working at a local nonprofit. In... (read more about this author)


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