When a 183-Year-Old Racial Casting Controversy Feels Eerily Current

Nicola Bertram and Paul Outlaw in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet
Nicola Bertram and Paul Outlaw in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet
Photo by Ed Krieger

This year’s call for an Oscars boycott over the Academy Awards’ spurning of actors of color comes as the latest reminder that, to paraphrase von Clausewitz, art is the continuation of politics with other means.

Nowhere is that dictum clearer than in Othello. And in few other cities does the tragedy’s 400-year-old discourse on race and the performance of racial difference remain more trenchantly pertinent than Los Angeles, a town that consistently lands on top-10 lists of the most racially segregated cities in America.

Which makes fortuitous last weekend's otherwise coincidental Atwater openings of two complementary Othello riffs — a sleekly contemporary adaptation by the estimable Independent Shakespeare Co. and the subject of this review, Junction Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Red Velvet, British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s contextual if somewhat pallid 2012 backstage period drama about 19th-century African-American actor Ira Aldridge’s cracking of London’s Shakespearean color barrier by becoming the first black actor to tackle the Moor on a public stage.

Paul Outlaw, center, as the 19th-century African-American actor Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet
Paul Outlaw, center, as the 19th-century African-American actor Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet
Photo by Ed Krieger

The New York–born Aldridge (creditably played by Paul Outlaw) has been driven from America by discrimination and is by the 1830s a successful actor in England's provincial theaters. After a cumbersome framing scene set in Lodz, Poland, on the eve of Aldridge’s death, Chakrabarti’s script finally kicks into gear by flashing back to the meat of her story — Aldridge being introduced by company manager Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell) to stunned actors as the replacement for Edmund Kean following the great tragedian’s collapse while performing Othello.

As the ensemble polarizes around Aldridge, what ensues is the kind of debate that today typically accompanies Othello performances that attempt to mount a blackface Othello (or the redface controversy over the Wooster Group's 2014 REDCAT premiere of Cry, Trojans!) — whether theater is a political act or one of artifice and an escape from reality. Arguing the latter, Keen’s son Charles (Ben Warner), the show’s Iago, bitterly complains that the precedent of a black actor playing Othello could mean that Jews would now be required to play Shylock and “half-wits” be cast as Caliban.

The real delight of director Benjamin Pohlmeier’s spare studio staging, however, comes in the play’s window on the declamatory “teapot” mannerisms of the century’s dominant acting style. Both Outlaw and the superb Nicola Bertram (as actress Ellen Tree) give a persuasive demonstration of emotional nuance under the constriction of ritualized gesture as they rehearse a scene, while Warner provides hilarious contrast by delivering a melodramatic Iago soliloquy like a bombastic Simon Legree.

Ultimately, however, the show, which Chakrabarti originally wrote as a vehicle for her husband, Adrian Lester, rises or falls based on the strength of its Aldridge. And Outlaw, whose stage presence recalls the late actor Paul Winfield, seemed a bit tentative on opening night. He convincingly conveys Aldridge’s youthful aspiration and reputed meticulousness but has yet to capture the stage legend’s roar of greatness.

Junction Theatre at Atwater Playhouse, 3191 Casitas Ave., #100, Atwater Village; through April 30. (800) 838-3006, redvelvet.brownpapertickets.com.


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