THEATER Review: “Red Velvet” @ Shakespeare & Co. [Berkshire On Stage]
Review by Larry Murray
At the exact moment that Ira Aldridge stepped on the stage at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden, they were debating the Slavery Abolition Act in England. It was 1833, and until then white actors in blackface had always played the Moor in Shakespeare’s Othello. It was a racist custom that had begun in Shakespeare’s day and continued every day thereafter, holding sway upon the major stages until Aldridge stepped in for ailing actor Edmund Kean on that fateful night. He was the first black actor to play Othello on a major London stage. He was not a British actor, either. Less than a decade earlier he had emigrated to London from the US, where he was born, and had been limited up until then to a variety of roles in the small theatres in London.
The playwright Lolita Chakrabarti set down this history in the play Red Velvet, which recently opened at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. The play has been performed in America only once before this, in a limited engagement by the British Tricycle company at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2014. This production, directed by Daniela Varon, is the first American production.
It stars John Douglas Thompson who, in an extended interview with him last week, found many parallels between his life had that of Aldridge. From the first moment Thompson strode the stage as Aldridge, he dominated, nay, commanded our full attention. The force between Thompson and Aldridge is strong. You can feel it, see it and admire it, for it radiates from the thrust stage of the Tina Packer Playhouse.