Red Velvet: rich and passionate

Walking Shadow Theatre, performing at the Southern Theatre

Jucoby Johnson in Red Velvet. Photo by John Heimbuch.

In the first scene of Red Velvet (Walking Shadow Theatre Co., performing at the Southern Theatre, through May 28), actor JuCoby Johnson as Ira Aldridge says there is “Something about velvet – a deep promise of what’s to come, the sweat of others embedded in the pile.” This could stand as the play’s mission statement, as the historical drama reveals the life of nineteenth century actor, Ira Aldridge.

Aldridge, a free African American born in New York City, he sailed to England in 1824, hoping for a theatrical career in a less racist society. Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti is the story of his life in England and on the continent. It is a fine work, capturing the solitary life of the itinerant actor and a man of color.

JuCoby Johnson, as Aldridge, is passionate and dedicated. He takes on both the elder actor, and in the flashback which constitutes the body of the play, a younger Aldridge, with ease. As the show develops, the younger Aldridge gets a break when the star of London theatre, Edmund Kean takes a tumble and must be replaced in the leading role of Othello. While Aldridge is a natural for the part of Shakespeare’s Moor, much of London is not ready for a black man in that role.

Johnson is supported by a fine cast. Andy Schnabel as theatre impresario Pierre Laporte stands out. His controlled simmer generates the climax of the show. Elizabeth Efteland, as Ellen Tree, the actress who plays Desdemona opposite Aldridge in Othello, is also very good.

One of the best parts of the play is when the cast of Othello argues over acting styles. Whether to keep to the established nineteenth century habit of grand gestures and sweeping pronouncements given at the edge of the stage, or to use a more realistic style portraying real emotion rather than mere emoting. It is very funny stuff and a good history lesson in theatrical style in and of itself.

Chakrabarti’s prose often turns poetic, and some of the play’s speeches are quotable axioms. When one character says, “Theatre is a political act…. We must confront life,” another character retorts, “People come to the theatre to escape reality.” The cast handles these with enough skill to make them sound realistic and not like dull platitudes.

The play was nominated for numerous awards in the UK when it premiered in 2014. In the able hands of Walking Shadow Theatre Company the play is an excellent night of theatre under the capable direction of Amy Rumennie. The eponymous red velvet curtain on the Southern stage (Set designer Annie Henley) is a stunner and the period costumes (designer E. Amy Hill) are detailed beauties.

There are many pleasures to be had in going to the theatre. After a lifetime on and around the stage seeing fine actors perform a good new play is a gratifying experience. This is the case with Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s Red Velvet. Highly recommended.

 

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