When Susi and I saw Red Velvet at the Tricycle Theatre in London, we knew immediately that we would want to bring it to San Francisco audiences. Sadly, we had known nothing about Ira Aldridge, so at the simplest level this play is a wonderful history lesson about this very important actor, a pioneer, who broke the color barrier in early 19th century Britain and went on the have a distinguished career, touring Europe as the toast of the great cities.
It is a tragically true story of racism, set against the backdrop of the abolitionist movement in England, taking place in the same year the slaves were freed. And it resonates today in a way
which painfully reminds us of how we still battle racism. Our current dialogue in the theatre about ethnically appropriate casting sadly reminds us of how far we still have to go. The “Not About Us Without Us” movement is just now gaining real momentum in regional theaters, and it was an embarrassingly short time ago that Laurence Olivier did Othello in blackface.
The recent ethnically appropriate production of The King and I at Lincoln Center was a wonderful step in the right direction, but locally, there is sure to be a firestorm of protest over an upcoming production of The Mikado which may not be cast with Asian actors. So much of the dialogue in the script rings familiar, and cautions us that we can never become complacent – in our empathy gym or in our own hearts – about the subtle and pervasive power of racism.
Despite all of its tragedy, Red Velvet is a thrilling play to watch, a wonderful time-travel opportunity into the workings of early 19th century theatre, with its teapot acting style and, what may seem to us, somewhat backward attitudes towards theatre. Could the acting in Shakespeare’s day have been so formal and disconnected? It is therefore a pleasure to see Mr. Aldridge make a suggestion that would usher in a revolution in acting! His deferential request to Ms. Tree, the greatest actor of that era, to simply “look at him when he speaks” gave birth to a revolution in modern acting styles.
Yet, like many historical plays, we are reminded that in many ways, little has changed about theatre. Egos, passion, temper, heartache… they still take center stage, as they did then amid the struggle for control of the company or the power of critics to make or break an enterprise or a man. It is both painful and reassuring to remember that not only are we all the same under the skin, but we have always been so.