Fictionalized history, like ‘free trade’ and ‘forgotten memories,’ is something of an oxymoron. The minute you introduce fiction to a story, its claim to being history loses strength. But unless a playwright has a transcript of the backroom conversations held by historical figures, she has no choice, in telling the story of great historical moments, but to guess at and improvise those conversations.
The result is a hybrid of history and fiction, that when done well, illuminates and expose the truth of what happened—or what very likely happened—while employing just enough imagination and guesswork as necessary to allow the story to be told at all.
Such was the task lying before British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti as she tackled the story of a significant, but little known, figure in theatrical world history—Ira Aldridge, the first black actor of perform on the legitimate stage in London. That was in 1833, when slavery was still legal in England.
Chakrabarti’s award-winning play ‘Red Velvet,’ now brings the story to the Bay Area, where San Francisco Playhouse has put together one of the best shows of the year.
Following the death of famed classical actor Edmund Kean, Aldridge—in an openly provocative and controversial move—was called upon to replace him in playing the lead in William Shakespeare’s Othello. In taking on the role, Aldridge would be acting alongside the all white actors of the distinguished company, performing at Keane’s famed Theater Royal.
Abolition was three months from becoming law in England, and the city was in a state of conflict and turmoil, with open riots in the streets. This was hardly the best time to challenge centuries of tradition and deep-seated prejudice.
What is known are the basic details of what happened, what the critics said about Aldridge’s performance, how the company responded, and what Alrdridge did next.
What is not known, and what Chakrabarti makes a highly entertaining and impressive effort at surmising, is what that first multiracial meeting of artists might have been like.
How did the company respond? What was the first rehearsal like? Who said what to whom before and after opening night?
Did it happen this way? Who knows?
But, as deftly and powerfully devised by Chakrabarti, directed by Margo Hall with marvelous command of the script’s complex blend of social comedy and raw drama, Red Velvet transcends the oxymorns of fictionalized history.
This is a good play and a strong production, with a towering performance by Carl Lumbly as Aldridge. The superb supporting cast includes Sonoma County actor Tim Kniffin, excellent in a tricky role as the dying Keane’s affronted actor son Charles, whose rising indignation at watching a black actor play Othello—a role he’d expected to assail himself—is simultaneously hilarious and chilling. Also strong are Richard Louis James in dual parts as Aldridge’s long-suffering dresser and a stodgy Shakespearean actor, Susi Damilano as Charles’ tentative but artistically intrigued actress fiancée Ellen Tree, and the effortlessly accent-shifting Elena Wright in a trio of key roles, including that of Aldridge’s white, English-born wife.
Chakrabarti’s robust script does somewhat stretch believability in an effort to have fun with Aldridge’s first backstage appearance at Theater Royal. That quibble aside, Red Velvet stands as a thing of graceful beauty, earning its way, line by line, to its heartbreaking climax. Supremely satisfying on numerous levels, this is a must-see historical drama. In eschewing simple conclusions or one-dimensional characterizations, Red Velvet delivers a 180-year-old story that, sadly enough, feels vividly and unnervingly contemporary.
‘Red Velvet’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through June 25 at San Francisco Playhouse, sfplayhouse.org