In the program for Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s production of Red Velvet, director Amy Rummenie includes in her notes, “…I’m fearing the implications of the well-worn phrase ‘the more things change, the more things stay the same.'” This sentiment haunts and propels the play, which features the story of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson) is the first African-American to play Othello, taking the stage after company member Edmund Kean collapses onstage in a Covent Garden production. Kean’s son, Charles (Ty Hudson) is infuriated that he is not the natural replacement for his father. While protests occur in the the streets of London calling for an end to slavery, Charles and company member Bernard (Michael Lee) see the fight for equality as a fad and company director Pierre’s (Andy Schnabel) choice of lead catering to fashion and politics. Pierre believes that Ira is the right man for the part and, while rehearsing with Ellen (Elizabeth Efteland), he proves himself to be progressive in his acting style. “So I may play how I feel? How avant garde!” Ellen proclaims. Despite his wonderful skill onstage, the reviews that come in about the production focus only on Ira’s skin color and the perceived indecency to have a black man physically touch a white woman onstage. When accusations about the company come out against Ira, the true prejudice in the theater is revealed and when we see Ira at the end of his career, we see him in white-face, playing Lear in Poland, taking on the guise of a man who had a successful career – but not the man we first saw in Covent Garden.
This outstanding cast carries the variety of roles and viewpoints with panache. Johnson and Efteland steal the show with beautiful, poignant performances, balancing 19th century dialogue along with Shakespearean scenes. However, Lee and Hudson’s love-to-hate characters are compelling as well and give voice to opinions that were considered logical not so long ago (and continue to persist in many ways today). Schnabel carries the complicated role of Pierre wonderfully – a man who wants his theater to be political but also wants to keep his company alive. And when worst comes to worst, he is no more free from the biases of society than anyone else. Bear Brummel (Casimir/Henry) adds excellent comedic relief and insight to progressive voice in theater at the time. Sulia Rose Altenberg (Halina/Betty/Margaret) carries three roles and three accents with exceptional poise and Kiara Jackson (Connie) with few lines brings enormous impact with her role as a maid who is present but often silent, until she warns Ira of what it is like to be black in this society.
There are so many layers of social discussion going on in this show – there’s the issue of race, the issue of what it means to “threaten decency,” the debates around different styles of acting (show wonderfully in Charles’s audience-facing, high dramatic delivery versus Ira’s more modern, intimate delivery given to the other actors in the scene), and the very purpose of theater itself. Is it for escapism or is it meant to be political? As someone who often finds herself at odds with patrons who do no understand the political implications of theater and continue to have debates such as the ones in the play, I was grateful to see these issues presented in front of an audience in such a way.
Beyond the politics, there are other implications for theater – what do you do when someone is accused of being unsafe onstage and harming another company member? This has a certain gravity given the events at Profiles Theatre in Chicago, but the allegations that come out against Ira in the show appear unfounded and racist, given what we know about him. Earlier, when Charles is concerned about Ellen’s safety, Ellen cries, “We were acting!” “How do you know?” he volleys back, unable to tell the difference between Othello and Ira, making the racist assumption that all black men are the same. Hidden in this is also the fear that an actor may not actually but acting but playing themselves, an issue Pierre later brings up, tying racist thinking up into the very concerns that actors have about working with each other. For Ira, this leaves him in a complicated place – what does he have to sacrifice to succeed as an actor? What is he to do about actors making instant judgements about him and his skill based on his skin color? What does he have to do to have a career? In the end, when we see him putting on white face to play Lear, this appears to be our answer. But I do wish the script had dug into this more and shown more of the aftermath of Covent Garden and what happened between there and Poland.