Conor McShane is a Chicago-based playwright, actor, and musician. A native of Michigan, Conor's plays have been produced by numerous companies throughout his home state, including Tipping Point Theatre, Fancy Pants Theater, Western Michigan University, and at the Renegade Theatre Festival. Since relocating to Chicago, his short plays have been produced by Dandelion Theatre (The Coat Check, The Hot Dog Stand), Thorpedo Productions (Love in 90 Minutes), and at the Twelve Ways to Play one-act festival. Most recently, his full-length play The Letter G was presented as a staged reading by Coffee & Whiskey Productions. He lives with his partner and closest collaborator, Leslie Hull, and a temperamental cat named Cheena.
Pictured (l-r): Greg Matthew Anderson, Dion Johnstone, Jürgen Hooper, Bri Sudia and Tiffany Renee Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Conor McShane
Ira Aldridge was one of the most famous, highest paid actors of his day, and one of the first prominent African-American actors to tackle some of Shakespeare’s greatest roles. Despite this, he’s forgotten by most theatergoers today. Is it simply because he worked at a time before performances could be recorded, or is there something more? Lolita Chakrabarti’s play RED VELVET — currently running at Chicago Shakespeare Theater in a production directed by Gary Griffin — serves as an introduction of sorts, depicting a pivotal moment in the actor’s life and career. Along the way, it proves once again that the prejudices we are fighting today have been with us for centuries.
The play opens with an aging, ailing Aldridge (Dion Johnstone) on tour in Poland, being interviewed by an intrepid journalist named Halina (Annie Purcell). She presses him on why, despite his success bringing Shakespeare throughout Europe, he has not performed in London in over 30 years. A red curtain then envelops the stage (one of the most breathtaking elements of Scott M. Davis’s effectively minimalist set design) and we are transported to London, 1833. A younger Aldridge is about to step into the role of Othello at the Royal Coburg in Covent Garden after the actor Edmund Kean falls ill. Most of the company, including leading lady Ellen Tree (Chaon Cross), eager young actor Henry Forester (Jürgen Hooper), supporting actress Betty Lovell (Bri Sudia), and bilious older actor Bernard Ward (Roderick Peeples), aren’t aware that their new lead actor is black, but they come around on the idea based on his reputation and talent. Ellen, in particular, forms a strong bond with Ira, much to the dismay of Charles Kean (Michael Hayden), Edmund’s son and Ellen’s former fiance. Despite strong houses, the London critical elite in 1833 weren’t quite ready to accept a black actor as Othello, and the theater’s board forces manager Pierre (Greg Matthew Anderson) to oust him in the wake of some scathing —and disturbingly racist — press.
Aldridge’s intensity is viewed as aggression, a sign of his true, violent nature, and he’s asked to tone it down to make the older, white audiences more comfortable. When a mistimed bit of stage physicality leaves Ellen with bruises on her arm, it’s all the board needs to declare Aldridge dangerous and remove him. This sort of reactionary attitude towards people of color challenging historically white institutions can be witnessed throughout contemporary society, from the silencing of Colin Kaepernick to much of the racially-based backlash to President Obama. In that sense, the play serves as a reminder that, despite our perception that we are living in a more enlightened age, these prejudices persist even today. They may not be quite as out in the open as they were in Aldridge’s time, but continue as an undercurrent in nearly every aspect of society.
RED VELVET isn’t particularly subtle in its examination of entrenched racism or the backlash to progress, with a tendency to unnecessarily underline what it’s trying to say, but is absorbing enough to pull you in regardless. Much of this is due to the strength of the cast, led by Johnstone’s forceful performance. At times the acting falls into a more stylized, performative mode, ironically as the play itself calls out this kind of acting as old fashioned or phony. Despite this, it tells an engrossing and frequently moving story. When the company takes turns reading the racist reviews, it was possible to feel the collective tension and frustration in the room, and a moment in which Ellen dresses down Charles, telling him “don’t blame me for your inadequacies,” received some deliciously cathartic applause. The play’s final image is a heartbreaking indignity; despite a lifetime of success and acclaim, Aldridge is still forced to hide his true self.
Chicago Shakespeare uses the considerable budget at their disposal to terrific effect, from Davis’s aforementioned scenic design to the sumptuous period costumes by Mara Blumenfeld. The cast performs admirably in the round, a tricky staging that’s managed well here. In one particularly effective directorial choice, as things begin to fall apart for Aldridge, the artifice of the play begins to fall away; the curtain no longer hides transitions, and stagehands become clearly visible. While it breaks the illusion, it’s a powerful image to mirror the way that reality comes crashing down around Aldridge. RED VELVET tells a moving story about a fascinating, complex, difficult man, one who’s more than worth remembering.
RED VELVET runs through January 21st. For more information visit chicagoshakes.com.