I don’t want to bury the lede on this: Red Velvet is a thoroughly arresting piece of theatre, with a cast and creative team firing on all cylinders! Lolita Chakrabarti’s play, presented by Crow’s Theatre, tells the story of Ira Aldridge (Allan Louis), the first Black man to star on a London stage. The riveting script has solid contextual details that ground the story while drawing us in. As his tale unfolds, it becomes quite astonishing how unaware even the most passionate thespians are of him.
A truly imposing figure, we first meet Aldridge in the cramped dressing room of a Polish theatre. It is the 1860s. Preparing for a performance of King Lear, he is approached by a young reporter, Halina Wozniak (Amelia Sargisson). Though restrained, we sense her ambition and she seems acutely invested in this interview. The professional obstacles she faces will become clear when we return to this framing device; her plight as a women expands the story’s examination of oppressive social mores.
Sargisson makes Halina’s determination palpable. As Aldridge, Louis has exhilarating charisma and radiates intense pride, passion and vulnerability. He knows his worth, but is exhausted by a lifetime proving it to an ignorant society. When Halina inquires into his last turn on the London stage, he and the audience are launched back thirty years.
A younger, more energetic Aldridge arrives on the stage of London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. He has been called in to replace a renowned actor, who has fallen ill, in the role of Othello. He is an American, with an ample reputation of his own, but most of the company were unaware he wasn’t, well, white. Tension mounts; it is, for the most part, simply shock, but there is overt hostility from Bernard Warde (Patrick McManus) and Charles Kean (Jeff Lillico)—compelling in their own way as entitled, vocal and decidedly conservative men of the era.
As they rehearse, it becomes clear that we’ve reached a pivotal moment in the development of theatrical performance. Aldridge’s fierce naturalism rustles the company’s feathers. When their baroque tradition is challenged, it is Ellen Tree (Ellen Denny), playing Desdemona, who is the most enthusiastic about the thrilling emotional truth of this new acting style.
Their relationship is a lovely tribute to the collaborative ideal of theatre creation. They inspire and challenge each other, though their intimacy eventually causes scandal. The biggest disruption to the triumph of the production, though, is the critical reception. The general audience is thrilled by Aldridge, but the reviews are scathing and cruel. With direct reference to his facial features and bigoted speculations about his nature, the content of these articles is truly ugly.
As Henry Forrester, Nathan Howe is very endearing. He tries to contain the excitement the mere presence of Aldridge provokes, but he can’t, and becomes a giddy ball of guileless enthusiasm. Beholding Aldridge, his sense of awe is entirely relatable.
There is a poignant, understated dynamic between Aldridge and the theatre manager, Pierre Laporte (Kyle Blair). It is somewhat heartbreaking to see Laporte’s eyes and hands linger on his friend just a little longer than necessary, hinting at feelings he can’t address. The second act features an absolutely electrifying confrontation between the two of them.
A Black servant, Connie (Starr Domingue), is a mostly silent figure, though our eyes are drawn to her as the company discusses the pros and cons of the government’s debate to abolish slavery. Completely dismissed by them, we scrutinize her reaction to Aldridge’s arrival on the scene. A private moment between the two of them eventually allows Aldridge a brief connection that is removed from the thorny politics that lurk almost everywhere else.
Director Cherissa Richards has forged a nuanced, finely tuned production that also offers some rousing spectacle. In her set, Julie Fox highlights a proscenium arch draped in red velvet, a meta-theatrical flourish that showcases the artifice and provides a thematically resonant frame for the action. Raw wood panels line the stage floor, so the actors quite literally trod the boards. Ming Wong’s period costumes are lush and detailed. Arun Srinivasan’s romantic lighting design really sells the simultaneously vast and cluttered beauty of a theatre’s backstage area. Thomas Ryder Payne completes the atmosphere with a textured soundscape and driving score.
Polished, potent and revealing; Red Velvet never once loosens its grip.