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A black actor sparks drama in ‘Red Velvet’

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Carl Lumbly plays 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge and Elena Wright plays a reporter hearing his story in “Red Velvet” at San Francisco Playhouse. (Courtesy Ken Levin)

“Red Velvet’ is based on the true story of a little-known classical American actor working in Europe in the early to mid-1800s. The catch is: He’s black.

Carl Lumbly commands the stage as that actor, Ira Aldridge, in San Francisco Playhouse’s West Coast premiere of the show by Lolita Chakrabarti.

The play, which opened in London in 2012, takes the form of a flashback. In the first scene, in 1867, a tenacious reporter (Elena Wright) sneaks into the reclusive Aldridge’s dressing room as he prepares to go onstage in Poland. She’ll do anything to get the story of how the revered master has conquered the stages of Europe.

The next scene, it’s 34 years earlier at Covent Garden in London, where members of Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean’s troupe deal with the fact that Kean cannot play Othello, because he has collapsed, and the audacious notion that a black actor has been hired to take his place portraying the famous Moor.

On hand are Edmund’s son Charles (Tim Kniffin), Ellen Tree, who’s playing Desdemona (Susi Damilano), young company actors Henry (Devin O’Brien) and Betty (Wright again), and French director Pierre (Patrick Russell), who brought in Aldridge for the part.

Their discussion is lively: Charles is against it (“People will be expecting my father”). but Pierre, reflecting the times (slavery has just been abolished) responds, “We must confront life. Don’t you think things have to change?”

Ellen is intrigued by Aldridge’s unorthodox technique; he doesn’t follow the era’s popular “teapot” method of acting, and his Othello actually encourages her to look at him.

Aldridge does go on, to mixed reaction (the audience loves him, critics don’t) that has life-lasting repercussions.
Directed by Margo Hall, the ensemble is most revelatory in “Red Velvet’s” most intimate moments. Lumbly’s up-close exchange with Damilano (as they rehearse “Othello’s” death scene) is stirring. So is his touching conversation with his white wife (the versatile
Wright) in the afterglow of a great performance, as he considers their great future together.

Another look at race relations comes with black chamber maid Connie (Britney Frazier), who listens quietly as she serves the bantering troupe (her reactions are priceless), and shares her thoughts in a one-on-one chat with Aldridge.

A gorgeous set (design and projections by Gary English and Thedore J.H. Hulsker) and impeccable costumes (by Abra Berman) bring the period to life.

While the show’s start is confusing (the actors are speaking German). and at times the dialogue feels unnaturally expository, “Red Velvet” engages and enlightens. Chakrabarti’s tale is that rare animal: fully satisfying, but also leaving the audience wanting to know much more about its fascinating hero’s life.

Red Velvet
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes June 25
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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