The Show Must Go On for a Show That Didn’t Go On: “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare Theatre Review
July 7, 2022 @ 5:00pm
After a two-day postponement, “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare Theatre Company opened its doors on June 23 for press night. Before the show, Shakespeare Theatre Executive Director Chris Jennings addressed the audience, explaining Covid-19 made its way to their cast and Kimberly Gilbert would be stepping in for Tro Shaw for not one, but all three of her roles. On June 28, the show once more had to cancel a week of shows due to another Covid outbreak. Now over its weeklong hiatus, “Red Velvet” returns for their last two week of shows through July 17.
The frustrating reality of Covid upending productions and concerts alike is unfortunately commonplace. Despite the show’s setback, the behind-the-scenes insight mirrors the compelling play, which centers around a production of Shakespeare’s “Othello” in 1833. The play within a play is based on the first Black actor to star as Othello on the London stage, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom). Aldrige steps into the lead role after established thespian Edmund Kean falls ill.
Much of “Red Velvet” takes place around the show’s rehearsal and events leading up to the opening and following night. Historically, this production of “Othello” only went on twice before the show was prematurely canceled. Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti reimagines how the conversations unfolded, including the racist vitriol from critics and within the company.
With Jade King Carroll’s masterful direction, Cheatom’s commanding performance as Aldridge showcases the complex character. In the opening scene, a jaded elder Aldrige declining in health prepares to play King Lear at a Polish theater. He encounters a journalist played by Gilbert, who sneaks backstage to ask about his decades-long success and why he has not returned to London theatre since the closing of the 1833 production.
The prompted question quickly becomes answered with every subsequent scene. Despite Aldrige’s promising talent and resilience when rehearsing for “Othello,” the American-born actor had no chance of reaching acceptance. The rest of his cast members, who equally matched Cheatom’s performance, vary in levels of skepticism to outright disdain toward Aldrige.
What’s more striking overall is not the inevitable injustice but the resemblance to modern times in theme — and dialogue. Although the script was written a decade ago, there are some eerie similarities to current events.
At one point, when Aldrige is conversing with the journalist about Russia’s reluctance to recognize Poland’s independence, he remarks, “They’ve got nervous leaders, uneasy about who is lurking in the darkness.” The audience responded with anxious laughter, as the quote could just as well be applied to Vladimir Putin invading Ukraine.
While Chakrabarti intentionally wrote the play about the mid-19th century with a 21st century’s audience in mind, the parallels to current racism and stereotypes still are an unsettling truth. The conclusion of the play will not only leave attendees wanting to learn more about Ira Aldrige but also questioning if we will ever break from repeating history.
“Red Velvet” runs through July 17. You can purchase tickets here.
Shakespeare Theatre: 610 F St. NW, DC; shakespearetheatre.org // @shakespeareindc
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