To some, red velvet refers to the latest craze in cupcakes. To others, like those who attended the New York opening of a British import at St. Ann's Warehouse in downtown Brooklyn, Red Velvet is the play to see.
About an American actor from a bygone era, black and brilliant, named Ira Aldridge, with outsized ego and hubris to match, Red Velvet limns familiar racial themes, and then freshens them beyond a story of victimization: a black actor in the early 1833 gets a chance against all bias to perform Othello with an all white cast at London's Covent Garden. But, he has his own ideas about how to play the moor. Aldridge experiences a classic demise that you may argue is color blind. The actor Adrian Lester brings vitality to this role, and the play within. As a black actor dismissed for refusing to restrain his all too ferocious performance as the crazed Othello, Lester is all rage, and vulnerability.
Directed by Indhu Rubasingham from Lolita Chakrabarti's excellent script, Adrian Lester works with a superb ensemble including Charlotte Lucas as his Desdemona, the actress Ellen Tree. Oliver Ryan as Charles Kean refuses to play Iago with Aldridge. Rachel Finnegan in a few roles including Aldridge's white wife, Natasha Gordon, Nic Jackman, and Simon Chandler are beautifully cast. Eugene O'Hare was so convincing as the French director Pierre LaPorte, it was a shock to learn he is Irish.
James Earl Jones, Dan Hedaya, and Laurie Anderson joined the opening night audience, which also included many from the board of the Tricycle Theater Company, traveling from London where the play originated, a huge success in 2012. The London stage was smaller than the expansive Warehouse, where the actors, sit in the wings applying makeup, awaiting entrance cues. The end, when Lester delivers lines from Lear going nuts, is so powerful, the audience was clearly awestruck. But it's his final gestures at his makeup table that draws the emotion. Mike Nichols, clearly moved, said, "You think all along it's the words, but then, it's not."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.