Breaking through the color barrier

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 18, 2016
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Carl Lumbly, left, as an African American actor in 1833<br>London, meets theater company members (Patrick Russell and Devin O             <br> Brien) as he prepares to play Othello in <i>Red Velvet</i><br> at SF Playhouse. Photo: Ken Levin
Carl Lumbly, left, as an African American actor in 1833
London, meets theater company members (Patrick Russell and Devin O
Brien) as he prepares to play Othello in Red Velvet
at SF Playhouse. Photo: Ken Levin

If you let a black man play Othello, it could be a slippery slope where you'll next expect Jews to play Shylock, the genuinely obese to play Falstaff, and actual teenagers to play Juliet. It will make it hard for audiences to escape reality, says a veteran of the old school. The final example is not lost on the leading lady, who continues to play Juliet and other roles that haven't corresponded to her actual age in, perhaps, decades.

But more unnerving than engendering a fast track to casting verisimilitude are the notions promoted by this black actor that the performances should also be rooted in truth. As rendered in Lolita Chakrabarti's play Red Velvet, having its West Coast premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, emotional honesty from a black man, even within the confines of a stage role, is unpalatable in a society economically built on slave labor in its colonies. That's the case in London of 1833, where declining sugar for your tea can be seen as a political statement.

Red Velvet pulls from the mists of history the biography of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor from New York who, for a while at least, found more welcoming theaters and audiences in Britain. It's in fact a fascinating story with inherent theatricality that frequently comes through in director Margo Hall's uneven production. But the playwright can be too keen to push at contemporary parallels, with such references to closing the borders, immigrants taking away jobs, and being on the wrong side of history anachronistically rattling about.

Chakrabarti wrote Red Velvet with her husband, Adrian Lester, in mind, and Lester received rapturous reviews when the play debuted in London several years ago. Bill English, artistic director of SF Playhouse, saw it in London, and went about securing rights to present it here. The play has a plum role for SF Playhouse regular Carl Lumbly, and his scenes as the proud, confused, and angry Aldridge are the highlights in what can otherwise be a dramatically creaky affair. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Shakespeare fares best, as several short scenes from Othello come alive in ways that the rest of the play often does not.

When Lumbly is not front-and-center, the play can become a dusty affair, with backstage life at a prominent London theater seemingly envisioned as a stodgy drawing-room comedy. The staging reinforces this impression, perhaps to set the characters in a hidebound world when Aldridge is not in it, but it's like an homage to anti-naturalism, and the leavening effect that laughter could offer is too often left to simmer beneath the surface. The whole story uses the hoary device of the failing Aldridge recalling his story in flashback form for a reporter in provincial Poland as he prepares to go on as, of course, King Lear.

Playing the veteran actress who is to be Aldridge's Desdemona in his Covent Garden debut, Susi Damilano best enters into the world that Aldridge wants to create onstage and that Lumbly manifests. The production also seems most at ease in these scenes, as the relationship between Lumbly's Aldridge and Damilano's Ellen Tree develops in ways that break through the mustiness that can surround them.

The cast, often playing more than one part, finds erratic success in roles that are sketched out to obvious prototypes. But the production looks good on Gary English's set and in Abra Berman's costumes, and it does introduce most of us to a significant historical figure whose story still has resonance. As overheard among the departing opening-night theatergoers, "Now I'm going to have to go to Google."

 

Red Velvet will run through June 25 at San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $20-$120. Call (415) 677-9596 or go to sfplayhouse.org.