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Posts Tagged ‘Afro-American history’


Ira Aldridge as Othello, by Henry Perronet (1830)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw Red Velvet yesterday and want to recommend seeing it if you live in the DC area (or near enough by) or if it comes to an area where you live. Right now it’s playing — magnificiently — at one of the two Shakespeare theaters in DC. At first I thought I was watching a 19th century American play, but a few minutes thought told me “this cannot be” (because of the humane attitudes of mind towards so many actors in the play’s story); it is a 2012 recreation of an imagined 19th century play

The most central value of your experience might be — for me this is true — is it’s about a black actor of the 19th century who had a remarkable career and life, Ira Aldridge, who, of course, I’d never heard of until I sat down to watch the play. I know there are many 19th century actors and actresses who were white and I’ve never heard (though because of my scholarly area I know about the Irish theater), but I have heard of the most famous ones — and I do know of many in the long 18th century. Aldridge was in his time a phenomenon and great actor; the Shakespeare company has a extraordinarily good actor (very Shakespearean type) to fill the role: Amari Cheatom:


Aldridge (Cheatom) greeting ever-so-chivalrously Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) who plays Desdemona

A powerful scene over the handkerchief late at night in Othello is enacted before us:

It recalls a painting of Garrick as Othello in the 18th century.

There are flaws. The opening has a curious conventional situation comedy feel, and at times I felt like I was watching some version of Guess who’s coming to dinner?, more than a bit cringe-worthy. It also went on too long as the playwright was determined to include women’s problems in 19th century professional and theater life too. One actress, Kimberly Gilbert, played three roles in the performance I saw (Halina Wozniak, Betty Lovell, Margaret Aldridge) — all of them calibrated to bring home aspects of women’s lives in the European and American theaters at the time (at least two actresses were ill). She managed to be pitch perfect and didn’t need the books she was carrying. But, on the one hand, once the initial introduction of the situation, and some of the “worst” characters was done (the most embarrassingly racist partly because they were transparently trying to hide their attitudes), the story of the play and my deep empathy for Aldridge became gripping;


Here he is, reading the cruelly denigrating reviews

and, on the other, it was so obvious that the woman character was simply describing the realities of female existence then (and sometimes now), especially just after US women had been deprived of a constitutional right to have control over their own body’s welfare and their whole existence’s fate, I was won over. Since when do plays have to be literally probable — the truth is never as plays are by their very form of art a massive suspension of disbelief.

My curiosity was aroused since I knew nothing of the actor (I knew nothing of the way his performances as Othello were received) nor his actual childhood and family background or slow rise in the theater. It had to have been talent impressing enough audiences — in Europe it seems where enslavement of black people had made little money for anyone. One of the places where his performance was not erased from memory by insistent racist denigrations of his physical negroid characteristics was Poland where he played King Lear. This play begins in Poland where he is playing Lear in his dressing room where a woman journalist has come to interview him in the hope of forwarding her career; there is a powerful penultimate scene between Aldridge and his French (very pro-French revolutionary) producer, Pierre Laporte (Michael Glenn) simply the two in front of the stage curtain; the play ends on him back in the dressing room with the Polish journalist, only this time with his face whitened in the way I once saw in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign the despairing black man about to allow white men to murder him in the most humiliating way possible.

The realities of Aldridge’s complicated existence, the ambiguities of his character are not brought out here — these belong to thickened (by full context, by history) biography. It is meant to be a play whose attention pointing content (to American theater, to highly talented black men) contains its importance.

Two worthwhile reviews: Thomas Floyd, in the Washington Post; and Morgan Musselmann for Washington DC News.

As performed in the Old Globe Theater


Albert Jones as Ira Aldridge and Amelia Pedlow as Margaret Aldridge

I came away wanting to know more about this actor and his peopled milieus. It seems to me significant that the playwright is a Bengali woman, born in the UK, grew up in Birmingham, has been involved in producing Calvino (Italian 20th century modernism) and now seems to live between London and NYC. She also adapted The Life of Pi


She is married to a brilliant British black actor, Adrian Lester.

A quietly (it was not over-produced) towering event on behalf of black Americans and the history of American theater putting on poetic masterpieces against all odds for this Shakespeare company. Also by extension Afro-English literature and art — I note she tends to go for distancing forms, does not choose direct realistic kinds of stories. I hope I do not seem mad, therefore, to classify this text as also belonging to Anglo-Indian diasporic texts.

Ellen

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