"Theatre is a political act” and “Red Velvet” is the match to light the flame that induces thought and starts a conversation that isn’t an easy one to have. The conversation of "Red Velvet" focuses on the racism of the early 19th century. An issue that is still present today. Chakrabarti uses “Red Velvet” as an avenue to confront, challenge, and press against the status quo.
When the legendary Edmund Kean collapses on stage, Ira Aldridge (Warren Welds) is brought in to play Othello.
There is optimism as Ira enters the theatre from actor Henry Foster (Nick Menendez) and company manager and long time friend of Aldridge, Pierre LaPorte (Shawn Scarpitta). Though not everyone reacts as joyously as Foster, who fanboys over Aldridge, creating one of my favorite moments in the play. Leading the opposition is Charles Kean (Samuel Krogh), the son of Edmund Kean, and the company’s Iago.
He objects, not to Aldridge's talent, but to the color of his skin. He compares the hiring of Aldridge to play Othello to making the play a freakshow. He continues by saying, "If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, half-wits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics? Then any drunken fool on the street will play Falstaff."
He even takes digs at his fiance, Ellen Tree (Shadya Muvdi), saying she's “too old to play Juliet and too plain to play the Queen.”
Krough's Kean is a subtle villain. The character is a product of the time and his station. He is a little boy trying to live up to the image of his father. He, as the villain, represents the political thought of the time. In 1833, when the majority of the play takes place, Parliament in England had just voted to abolish slavery in all its colonies leading many to protest. Just 27 later, the United States would enter into its own war over the same issue. In “Red Velvet”, Kean is the status quo. Aldridge is the political unrest that is coming. The two are destined to be enemies from the beginning. Aldridge was rejected by audiences and critics, and after only two performances and scathing reviews by London theatre critics, he was dismissed.
What I loved about the portrayal of Kean and Aldridge is that neither is all good or all bad. They have redeeming and damning qualities. Aldridge is not put on a pedestal and worshiped as a God. He is a man, with faults, faults that cost him so much in the end. Likewise, Kean is not unredeemable as a man, he is human. This play is about humanity; the good and the bad.
What could have been a heavy play was met with comedy, thanks in most part, to Menendez and Mattheau Monzo's portrayals of Foster and Bernard Warde. One of the most memorable moments is Menendez’s acting of Cassius. You can see that his Foster is eager to impress LaPorte, but in the moment of truth, he cannot remember the line without a little help from his fellow actors. It was interesting to see actors, playing actors, playing roles. Monzo’s Warde reminds me of that grumpy uncle who likes things the way they are and rails against change but is still loveable even if he is criticizing your life.
Muvdi, who played Ellen Tree, was a crowd favorite. Tree is presented as a strong, independent female, who presses against the opposition of her fiance. When Kean leaves the company, he assumes his future wife will too, but she instead stays intrigued by Aldridge. Muvdi won the crowd over every time she stood for Aldridge.
There were a few moments that as a theatre go-er, I could have done without. One instance is with the scene changes. Throughout the scene changes, the crew moved about not hidden by a blackout, but instead integrated into the world around us. Each transition you could hear the crew talking and yelling for pieces to be moved. It created the world of backstage antics that audiences aren’t usually privy too. However, what seemed out of place and took me out of the show, was a couple that would waltz around the stage as transitions occurred. In those moments, I was taken out of the world of “Red Velvet” and reminded that I was watching a play instead of being experiencing a moment in time.
To experience “Red Velvet” among the unique audience I was fortunate to be a part of was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was intoxicating to be a part of an audience that responded so positively to the play. Cheers, laughter, and the occasional sound of disapproval made this play feel more powerful. Even if the waltzing couple took me out of the world of the play, the moment we were back in, we were back in. It is not an easy thing to do to keep an audience attentive and responding so positively to a play, but FIU did exactly that.
In all my years as an actor, writer, and theatre patron, I have never been in a place like I was with “Red Velvet.” The play itself spoke to me at my core level. It affirmed notions that I have held about theatre for a while. Theatre is a political act. It is an avenue to change. It’s a way to start the conversation and for me, it’s a reminder of how far we have come, yet we still have further to go.