A prideful Ira Aldridge sits beneath the spotlight of his own theatric potential as a quivering servant pours him tea. “Theater is supposed to be provocative,” he proclaims, smirking at the audience with an expected glance, one reflecting the resilience of a man breaking through racial boundaries instilled within 19th century Shakespearean theater. Two scenes later, Aldridge is persecuted for the revolution that is his performance, that is his existence, as the first African-American man to establish himself in an international theater.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet is effectively an immense provocation in itself, a play that avenges the characters of its own making and most importantly the one man who, despite the racial discrimination he faced, stood in solitude, center stage.
Living within the fractured narrative of Chakrabarti’s creation, Ira Aldridge finds himself vacillating between the past and present, between his first performance in London’s Covent Garden Theatre and his final cries for acceptance in a New York City hotel room. The juxtaposition of these two points is crucial within the context of Aldridge’s first role at the Covent Garden: Shakespeare’s Othello (though he played Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko in reality). One might imagine that a person of color playing a person of color would be quite fitting for a performance that aims to hold some sort of gravity in the world of realistic theater. This, however, is clearly not the case when an “American gentlemen of color” becomes “The African Tragedian” under the circumstances of a Britain reeling with the enactment of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.
Though the audience becomes anxious with the complete absurdity of the moment, Aldridge never really acknowledges the disadvantages that come with his race until the final scene of the show, where a rabid breakdown is indication of some sort of coming-to-terms. In this moment, the audience comes to notice a defining parallel: Ira, like Othello, skillfully denies his race until all is lost, until, for Othello, his wife no longer remains pure, and for Aldridge, his chance at international acclaim is sullied with disgrace.
The set of the Lantern Theater provides an intimate experience between actors and their audience, an opportunity for much of the intensity of Red Velvet to be addressed within the breakdown of a stage that cannot further contain the passion of Aldridge’s craft. In one of the final scenes of the performance, Connie, a Jamaican servant at the Covent Garden Theatre who is respected by others only for her docility, finds herself trying to protect Aldridge from the horribly racist reviews of his own performance. “You are what you wish to see,” she mutters, becoming the character I wanted to root for most if Aldridge continued to live in his own spectacular ignorance.
Connie, however, is one of six characters that stand on the floor in the last scene, staring at a lone Ira Aldridge. In that moment, I found myself wondering if the spotlight was on Ira because he had finally overcome – quite literally – the other characters, or if his dementia-ridden spectacle enmeshed him further within the ghastly production that was his life.
Perhaps the most crucial point I realized while watching Red Velvet and later interacting with the actors was the notion that a performer is a person. Thus, they play people, not movements. In other words, the dynamics between characters such as Ira and Bernard, a blatantly avid proponent of the Atlantic Slave Trade, is a relationship between two humans working within the framework of their own individuality. An actor erects emotion from an audience through these performances, but that one begins to attribute a face to an ideology is an intriguing concept to note.
Similarly, Ira’s relationship with Connie becomes a paradox in itself when he, a man of color, tells a Jamaican servant, “oh, no sugar for me,” when being served tea, both asserting his supremacy yet denying that which makes him supreme. This is to say that the cultural and political dynamics woven throughout Red Velvet’s script effectively redefine what it means for theater – and arguably human existence – to be an opportunity for public provocation. As Ira Aldridge sits center stage in an 1867 hotel room, powdering his face ashen and beginning to descend into absolute insanity, the audience need look no further than the parted red velvet curtains behind him, signalling that your show, Ira, is not yet over. In fact, perhaps it has only begun.
Darya Bershadskaya (277)