There’s a major play waiting to be written about Ira Aldridge, the African-American who was one of the great Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. Disappointingly, “Red Velvet,” by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, is not it.
The two-act drama, which made its regional premiere Friday at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis in a handsome staging by Walking Shadow Theatre Company, takes a too small view of its groundbreaking subject, whose performance was not mere art. Aldridge’s stage mastery was partly a refutation of ideas used to justify slavery and colonialism.
We see glimpses of his strength as he pushes back against biases of his day, but we don’t get a deep understanding of what drives him, despite some admirable elements in director Amy Rummenie’s production, featuring JuCoby Johnson in the lead role.
Told in reverse — a questionable structure — “Red Velvet” begins in Poland in 1867, just before Aldridge’s death. In the first act, he is being interviewed in his dressing room by a Polish reporter.
The second act takes us to the beginning of his career in London in 1833, when he steps into the role of Othello for the first time, taking over for ill actor Edmund Kean opposite Ellen Tree as Desdemona. Kean’s son Charles (Ty Hudson), a would-be star engaged to Tree (Elizabeth Efteland), has reasons to root for Aldridge to fail.
Rummenie’s staging, which takes place on period set pieces designed by Annie Henly, is clean and clear. Her actors, especially Efteland, show a good grasp of the material.
Othello — a black man who kills his white wife onstage — is perhaps one of the most fraught characters in the canon. Johnson, who recently acted in “Six Degrees of Separation” at Theater Latté Da, has unassailable craft. He handles his lines smartly and with feeling, and moves in a stately manner, but perhaps owing to youthfulness, he does not always have the gravitas of a man who would make a powerful Othello.
The best player in the cast is Efteland, whose Ellen must navigate her fiancé’s insecurities onstage and off as she works opposite a black actor playing her murderous husband in a fraught setting. Efteland’s performance shows maturity and intelligence. She says much with gestures and pauses.
Hudson’s Charles is a character who is comically out of his depth; the actor imbues him with the silly facial expression of a constipated young man who’s trying to smile. You feel for him, but also want to get away.