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Red Velvet

December 1

January 21, 2018

CST's Courtyard Theater

by Lolita Chakrabarti
directed by Gary Griffin

A Conversation with the Director

As he and the Red Velvet cast launched their rehearsal process, CST Associate Artistic Director Gary Griffin met with Chicago Shakespeare staff to discuss his thoughts about the play.

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 resonates with us right now?

Today’s theater industry is engaged in challenging discussions regarding diversity and inclusion. What I find fascinating in the history that Lolita Chakrabarti has interwoven here is that these debates and the struggle to achieve progress have been ongoing for a very long time, and involve a timeless discussion of politics and art. It’s compelling to watch these characters find themselves on different sides of the debate at different times.

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 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 our human struggle with race and entitlement and the question of our readiness to explore cultural change.

Do you think that a story like this one, based in history, lands 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 ignites violence. Learning about the actual stories, I 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 these 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 most surprised you about the script?

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 became 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 completely in sync with the classical theater in which they performed. 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 moments are so powerful as they reveal Ira’s insecurities—a man who has succeeded by being uncompromising—and his vulnerability. But they also reveal his love and respect for these women as equal partners, both on stage and off.

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