Chicago Theatre Review
Raven’s ‘Red Velvet’ Brilliantly Captures Important History
Red Velvet – Raven Theatre
In 1833, Ira Aldridge, a New York-born actor, became the first Black man to perform the role of “Othello” on a London stage. He lasted only two performances, as the intense racism of both the British press and the theater community itself forced the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden to go dark for the first time in its history. And though Aldridge moved on and became a highly demanded actor across theaters in Europe and Russia, he never did get over the sting of his brief stint at Theatre Royal.
That infuriating but vital history is brilliantly captured in “Red Velvet,” which is receiving its Chicago premiere from the always excellent Raven Theatre. Working with a informative (yet well paced) text from Lolita Chakrabarti, the hugely talented director Michael Menendian – whose Raven credits include such exquisite productions as “All My Sons,” Beast on the Moon,” and one of my favorite shows on a Chicago stage, “Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys” – navigates his experienced cast through the plays many layers, one that is as much about the art of theatrical performance as it is about racial tensions and the ignorance of whiteness.
Running just over two hours, “Red Velvet” is highly detailed in its presentation. Although there is a small time jump in the narrative (we begin the play 20 years after the ill-fated “Othello” staging), the play focuses entirely on the two days in which Aldridge had the Othello role: the unexpected heart attack of renowned actor Edmund Kean; Aldridge’s surprise casting; an extremely tense rehearsal, in which Aldridge’s white cast members strenuously object first to his cast, then his insistence on playing the passionate Moor as Shakespeare wrote him; and finally, the press’ universally negative (and racist) reactions to Aldridge’s acting. Amidst all that, one of the great pleasures of “Red Velvet” is the respect is has not only for its characters, but for Shakespeare’s play as well. We are treated to extended debates among the show’s characters on how “Othello” should be staged and performed, and how those interpretations clash with the politics of the real world.
The cast is uniformly excellent – Matt Klingler, Tim Martin, and Tuckie White stand out – but the play belongs to Brandon Greenhouse, who is simply startling as Aldridge. I had previously seen Greenhouse in two Raven productions (“Scottsboro Boys” and “Milk Like Sugar”), and though he was excellent in both, it hardly prepared me for the confident, even swaggering charisma that he brings to Aldridge, a man who, by the time of 1833, had dealt with far too much in America to bow down to the idiotic racists of the UK. Voice booming, aggressively gesticulating – Greenhouse is terrific, and he commands attention whenever he is on the stage.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through Nov. 27 by Raven Theatre Company, 6157 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60660
Tickets are available by calling 773-338-2177 or by visiting www.raventheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.