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)

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)

A black actor sparks drama in ‘Red Velvet’

“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.

REVIEW
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


Britney FrazierCarl LumblyElena WrightLolita ChakrabartiMargo HallPatrick RussellRed VelvetSusi DamilanoTheater

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted changes to The City's streets including Slow Streets closures to increase open space access and the Shared Spaces program, which allows businesses to use public right-of-ways for dining, retail and services. (Examiner illustration)
COVID is reshaping the streets of San Francisco

Walk down Page Street, which is closed to thru-traffic, and you might… Continue reading

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said some students and families who want to return will not be able to do so at this time. “We truly wish we could reopen schools for everyone,” he said. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFUSD sets April reopening date after reaching tentative agreement with teachers union

San Francisco Unified School District has set April 12 as its reopening… Continue reading

José Victor Luna and Maria Anabella Ochoa, who cite health reasons for continuing distance learning, say they have been enjoying walking in Golden Gate Park with their daughters Jazmin, a first grader, and Jessica, a third grader. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Some SFUSD families prefer distance learning

Health issues, classroom uncertainties among reasons for staying home

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation intended to help California schools reopen. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Newsom signs $6.6 billion school reopening legislative package

By Eli Walsh Bay City News Foundation Gov. Gavin Newsom and state… Continue reading

Most Read