A CONVERSATION WITH DIRECTOR GARY GRIFFIN
CST Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin met with his cast and the staff of the Theater to discuss Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet and Chicago Shakespeare’s upcoming production.
Many don’t know the history of Ira Aldridge—even those of us who work in the theater.
I first heard of Ira Aldridge during a class in graduate school where we studied the history of acting and major actors of the past 500 years. Aldridge was regarded as a major nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor—and the first African American actor to play Othello. Reading Lolita Chakrabarti’s play was the first I learned of the controversy surrounding his debut as Othello at Covent Garden in London. I was fascinated to discover that it was the authentic truth of his performance that caused so much discomfort. Many critics were opposed to his portrayal; most could not see past his race and the emotional force of his performance. He only played two performances in London and was dismissed. For the rest of his career he toured extensively and successfully but, except for a single appearance at the Lyceum, he never played London again. I am looking forward to sharing his story with our audiences because I believe it will have lasting power—and I would wish that they will never see Othello in the same way again.
What about this story’s history resonates with us right now?
Red Velvet takes place at the same time that England is debating the abolition of slavery. The actors have to pass through protests in the streets in order to get into their theater. And there are wildly different political points of view among them, just as there are outside the theater doors. The discomfort with the subject of race makes introducing an African-American Othello at this moment especially charged.
We believe that theater and the arts in general are progressive and will lead us through change. Red Velvet exposes the internal struggle that artists face. As the debate gets heated, sometimes one’s true nature is revealed and the unconscious biases and fears are laid bare. Our country has been struggling with our desire for, and fear of, progressive change. I think this play provides a microcosm of human struggle with race and entitlement and the question of our readiness to explore cultural change.
Do you think that this story being based in history makes it land differently?
I have recently directed several plays that are based on actual people. A common thread in their stories is the injustice and inhumanity that occurs when a person’s race or sexuality becomes a symbol for a community’s intolerance. The depth of a community’s prejudice is exposed, and the fear of tolerance causes violence. I love learning about the actual stories and feel a different level of responsibility to deliver a production that understands the challenges faced by each of the characters. There is much passionate debate in Red Velvet. I love debates on stage because somehow in the theater I feel freer to explore more sides of an issue (especially the ones I most disagree with), and I love the challenge of finding three-dimensional life in characters I am normally offended by.
Ira Aldridge represented a radical change in theater practice—not only because of the color of his skin but also in his style of performance.
Red Velvet provides us a window into nineteenth-century acting styles, when Aldridge’s more progressive approach to Shakespeare comes into conflict with the approach by Edmund Kean’s company of actors with whom he would play Othello. The general style was variations on what is known as “Teapot” acting, a name derived from the physical look of the actor, with one hand on the waist and the other arm extended in proclamation. Teapot-style actors generally faced front and delivered their lines directly to the audience. They were very disciplined about accuracy with verse and poetry. Aldridge, by contrast, favored more interaction and physical contact. The physical violence Aldridge displayed was considered extreme and prevented the audience from the escapist experience they wanted in a night of theater. Over time Aldridge was celebrated for his power, but at first London audiences were shocked. We’re still debating approaches to Shakespeare, both regarding the actors’ delivery of the text and the degree to which directors and productions are concept-driven. The debates in Lolita’s play I find fascinating—she imagines the artists’ challenges in 1833 and, at the same time, discovers the timeless issues we are still discussing as we try to advance Shakespeare performance today.
What is it that has perhaps most surprised you about the script as you delve into the play?
Lolita’s creation of Red Velvet feels like a very personal one on many levels. I was aware that the play had originally starred her husband, Adrian Lester, an actor I greatly admire, and I was curious about her take on the story. As I read scene after scene and discovered the depth and complexity and passion in the writing, I was also fascinated by what felt like such a fresh and modern take on this story. There was absolutely nothing separating us from the play’s central story and debates. This was writing that was fearless. Through powerful language and vivid, complex characters, Lolita has created a world that lives authentically both in its historical context and to us now. I also love the intimacy and specificity she crafts with the female characters in Ira’s life. There are several key scenes that explore these relationships—with actress Ellen Tree, his wife Margaret, the Polish journalist Halina, and Connie, a Jamaican maid who works at the theater. These scenes are so powerful because they reveal Ira’s insecurities—a man who has succeeded by being uncompromising—and vulnerability, but also his love and respect for these women as equal partners, both on stage and off.
Why does the Frenchman, company manager Pierre Laporte, offer Edmund Kean’s role to Ira Aldridge when everyone else seems to be coming from such a different place—in the cast, in the audience, and among theater critics?
Pierre’s decision to introduce him to this role is driven by an artistic reason. He’s taking a very European, sophisticated, long view of Ira. In nineteenth-century America, Ira Aldridge couldn’t play this role, and as an adolescent he emigrates to England. He quickly finds success in multiple roles on London’s stages, and tours to the provinces, where he is given the great leading roles of the time.
But when Pierre brings him in to take over as Othello at one of London’s most prestigious theaters, it’s not as an “experiment” of some kind on the manager’s part. These are people at the top of their game—behind the red velvet curtain of London’s West End. Ira is to replace Edmund Kean—the greatest tragedian of all time. Had he gone out there and delivered the role in a style of acting less foreign to the audiences, critics, and fellow actors, his work might have been considered and accepted. But instead, Ira said, I’m going to do it my way, and I’m going to show them what real acting is. They weren’t ready. They’re frightened of what he brings to the role. And Charles Kean, Edmund’s son who plays Iago opposite his father’s Othello, has to be terrified—his career is at stake. Ira performed the role twice and, from all accounts, he was brilliant and terrifying. Both his presence and his style terrified a world not ready for a black actor to play that role. His run was cut short after those two performances and he never played London again.
Charles Kean does seem to expect that he’ll inherit the role from his father.
In that era, casting was typically determined by seniority. And there was great fear, I think, about the notion of authenticity that Aldridge brought to the role. In this play, we watch as Ira Aldridge and Ellen Tree perform Othello’s “handkerchief scene.” The way in which was staged with such realism, the audience genuinely feared for the actress. When you see terrifying stage combat, it’s a disciplined technique that achieves that response from its audience. We, too, hopefully, will experience that bit of fear. As Ira talks Ellen Tree through the process of how to play that kind of stage combat, I think the writer is removing that veil from the audience. That’s something this play, I think, reveals beautifully.
What have you discovered in this history that connects so viscerally to us now?
It’s most important that we are, first and foremost, true to its time and story, and then we can explore how does telling this story open up a conversation about where we are and what we’re debating now? I think about this play a little like how Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible. He wrote that play about the Salem witch trials at the height of the Joe McCarthy era. Even had there been no Congressional hearings a couple of years later, Miller’s play was of great importance. That’s the way I feel about Red Velvet, too: our very current debates about race, about authenticity, and diversity in art make the writing of this play extremely important.
For me, this story explores the dynamics of not only a theater company, but of any group of people who are trying to work together and are challenged by change. This is a play about being challenged by change. The theater community of nearly two centuries ago populates this story, but I think you’ll find that they are familiar in the ways that they respond to events threatening to change their world. Their concerns that are central to this story—Can I embrace and be part of these changes? Will I be relevant anymore?—are very powerful ones today, in the theater community and, in truth, across our country and the world we are living in.
And is that what has come to excite you most about telling this story?
Even if nothing were happening in the world today to make this story so relevant, this would still be a great play. A story like this one is my favorite kind of play—one that challenges my beliefs. As artists, we see ourselves as progressive in our ideas, but sometimes something comes along and we, too, are challenged by the threat of change—and those are the most shocking moments for us. This play is a perfect show to stage right now. First, because attention must be paid to this man, Ira Aldridge. But also let’s realize that some of the debates we’re having currently about diversity and authenticity and ownership of story have been happening for centuries. Let’s understand our part in that larger conversation and know that these debates didn’t originate last month or two years ago, but that they have been struggles in art for a very long time. This play challenges our beliefs.
How will we come to know this man through Lolita Chakrabarti’s eyes?
There’s no clear hero in this story. Ira is a very complicated, difficult, and flawed person. I hope we’ll deliver something that balances that conflict and speaks to the challenges everyone in this story faced at a time of great social and artistic change. This is not a story that’s there to be noble in doing it, but rather to examine what happens to people when they’re faced with a challenge to their way of life, and their way of art. There are some ugly behaviors in this story. I ultimately hope that we learn to be more forgiving.
Is there anything you want to add, specifically for teachers who will be bringing their students to this production?
I found it incredibly touching in learning more about his young life that he was actually a tough kid, and someone put him into Shakespeare to help him find his way. And now, he’s finally admitting that about his past, because he starts to tell the truth about his life and he has to admit that Shakespeare saved him. That’s the power of his story, that he had someone else who recognized that potential in him from a young age.