Entertainment

Red Velvet tells the story of Ira Aldridge

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Where: Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 2750 Granville St., Vancouver

Tickets: From $29 at artsclub.com

In Red Velvet, Quincy Armorer plays Ira Aldridge, the first Black actor to play Othello on the English stage.

Lolita Chakrabiti’s 2012 play finds the American thespian at 60, looking back on his life, particularly the time in 1833 when he walked out onto the stage of a Covent Garden theatre as Shakespeare’s Moorish military commander and blew the minds of London theatre audiences and critics — both for his skin colour and his acting technique.

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“The style of acting is so much different now than it was back then,” Armorer said. “There was a certain style to performance at that time, and the actors would have been trained significantly in how to perform all of the gestures and the movements, the poses. There’s a scene where Ira is explaining to another actor how he likes to listen and respond. He was connecting with the other actors and the characters in a different way.”

However, Red Velvet is less about acting technique than the floorboards-shattering appearance of an actor of colour on an English stage in a major role. After venerable British leading man Edmund Kean is unable to do the role after falling ill, company leader Pierre Laporte surprises everyone — especially Kean’s entitled son — by casting Aldridge, a friend and an actor already a success outside London. Theatre critics of the time were aghast.

Aldridge might have broken ground, but even 132 years later Laurence Olivier was putting on blackface to play the character in a 1965 movie (and receiving an Oscar nomination for his efforts).

“Looking at movements like Black Lives Matter, or even #OscarsSoWhite from a few years ago, the idea of awareness of race and conversations about representation are more relevant than ever,” Red Velvet director Omari Newton said.

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Omari Newton
Omari Newton directs Red Velvet for Arts Club March 21-April 21 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. Photo by Charles Zuckerman/ZuckermanWong /Arts Club

“And it’s wild to know that there was this trail-blazing figure who played this character in 1833 and then, for years, even up until the 1960s, we still had people playing Othello in blackface. We’re still in many ways struggling for accurate representation, and people of colour getting their due in terms of their contribution.”

Newton says that when he began thinking about how to approach the play, he saw a connection with Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror movie, Get Out.

“In the film, there’s this idea of being in ‘the sunken place,’ where you are inhabiting your body but you aren’t in full control of it. And you’re sort of stuck in a subservient place and trying hard to communicate and to go through, but circumstances don’t allow you to easily do so.”

Armorer played Othello in 2012, an experience he says is “super helpful going into this production. You do see a little bit of the play itself when the actors are prepping, just a few exchanges. And then in the first act you get to see a scene between Othello and Desdemona. But the bulk of this play is really around the production.”

The cast of the Arts Club production also includes Lindsey Angell as Ellen Tree (the play-within-a-play’s Desdemona), Sebastien Archibald as Charles Kean, and Tess Degenstein in three roles: Halina Wozniak, Margaret Aldridge, and Betty Lovell.

“Vancouver audiences are in for a treat,” Newton said.

“In addition to being a memory play abut a real historical figure it’s a love letter to theatre performance, and honours the evolution of theatre performance. Traditional Arts Club audiences will love it and people who don’t often go to the theatre will also enjoy it, because it’s such a powerful story.”

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