Who was the world’s highest-paid actor in the mid-19th century?
A black man from New York.
You’ve probably never heard of him. He was the first African-American actor on European stages, the first black artist who ever played Othello. Invited to share his classical repertoire at Russia’s Imperial Court, he was paid the equivalent of $2.5 million.
His name was Ira Aldridge. At 17, when a mob burned down the all-black Manhattan theatre where he got his start, he left the US.
At 60, he planned an American tour; he never made it back. Poland, where he died, gave him a state funeral — but in his home country, he was invisible, like most black people.
English playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has worked for almost 20 years to make him visible again. Three years ago, her Red Velvet debuted in London. Now, LA’s Junction Theatre is putting Aldridge on stage in Atwater.
Red Velvet (named for old-time theatre curtains) tells Aldridge’s story by juxtaposing two moments: his final appearance in Lódz in 1867, and the historic Othello at Covent Garden in 1833, when he stepped in for the mortally ill Edmund Kean.
We meet Aldridge when he’s old, famous, and a mix of crotchety and gentle, and we identify with him readily. Then, transported to London three decades earlier, we feel the shock and pain of the press’ viciously racist reviews (though the public loved him).
What’s hard for us to appreciate is the Victorian acting style. But Paul Outlaw (as Aldridge) and Nicola Bertram (as actress Ellen Tree) are masters of their art. Incredibly, as Aldridge and Tree rehearse, their stylized poses and declamations make us feel an electrically real relationship between Othello and Desdemona, both in its early bloom and in its tragic end.
This is a wonderful accomplishment (and the hardest challenge the script presents). A biographic play will tell us Aldridge was a great actor. But thanks to Outlaw and Bertram, we know it — despite the passage of nearly 200 years.
Credit is also due to scenic artist Kiley Hannon, who evokes with three drapes in a black box the plush grandeur of the 19th-century stage (though the furniture does push scene-changing to its limit). And Kristina Moore’s costumes are nicely accurate — even to the occasional difficulty of managing so many layers of fabric.
This production could be improved by more directorial attention to motivating every onstage movement, and to where characters face when they speak. More than once, scenes full of rising energy lost momentum when these were ignored.
Red Velvet is a strong play, however, well-focused in the writing and lifted above the merely historical by its principals’ performances. Nor are they alone: Erin Elizabeth Reed (as Aldridge’s wife Margaret) and Dee Dee Stephens (as the black maid Connie) bring two interesting women to full life in very short scenes. Would that Chakrabarti had found more for them to do — as she did for the audacious Polish reporter Halina, deftly portrayed by Kailena Mai.
Because it brings back to life a great artist made invisible by his blackness, and because it lets us actually experience his greatness (despite the gulf between his artistry and what we’re used to), Red Velvet deserves to be seen. It won’t always be easy to cast — but here in LA, Junction Theatre has found actors who make it sing.
Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Benjamin Pohlmeier.
Presented by The Junction Theatre, at the Atwater Playhouse, 3191 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles 90039.
Friday and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 5:00 –through April 30.
Tickets: <http://redvelvet.brownpapertickets.com> or (800)838-3006.