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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Theatre review: Red Velvet will spark meaningful conversations

Many will leave the often comedic but also profoundly moving Red Velvet wanting to know more about African-American actor Ira Aldridge’s life story.

Many will leave the often comedic but also profoundly moving Red Velvet wanting to know more about African-American actor Ira Aldridge’s life story that provides the basis for British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s thought-provoking play. It opened fittingly at the Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on World Theatre Day,

Throughout it, Red Velvet provides intriguing glimpses into Aldridge’s professional and personal lives while delving into broader themes of racism and societal acceptance. The play challenges the notion of true acceptance amidst a backdrop of racial prejudices that persist despite outward proclamations of tolerance. 

The narrative begins with a world-weary, mature Aldridge in Poland, masterfully portrayed by Quincy Armorer. He encounters a young reporter and an usher, both with thick Polish accents, in his dressing room. Despite initial communication barriers, we learn about Aldridge’s celebrated career in Europe, his marriages to Margaret and later to Amanda, a Swedish countess, and their children, two of whom achieved fame as opera singers.

The play transitions to a pivotal moment in London as Amir Ofek’s dramatic set morphs, with a spectacular flourish, into a much earlier backstage drama, where a youthful Aldridge replaces a white actor who used thick blackface makeup in the role of Othello. The scene highlights the challenges and discrimination faced by Aldridge due to his race.

Anthony F. Ingram, Lindsey Angell, Tess Degenstein and Kyla Ward in the Arts Club production of Red Velvet. Photo by Moonrider Productions.
Anthony F. Ingram, Lindsey Angell, Tess Degenstein and Kyla Ward in the Arts Club production of Red Velvet. Photo by Moonrider Productions.

This production skillfully balances moments of outrageous comedy with poignant reflections on racial identity and social bias, expertly guided by director Omari Newton and brought to life by the talented Arts Club cast. It eventually degenerates into raw violence and leaves us with a riveting ending back in Poland. 

A newcomer from Barbados, Kyla Ward shines with her subtle irony as the Black maid Connie. Lindsey Angell’s sympathetic portrayal of Ellen Tree and Tess Degenstein’s loving depiction of Aldridge’s wife, Margaret, add layers of depth to the narrative and provide evidence of the great actor’s charisma.

The play’s opening night sparked meaningful conversations, with audiences eager to explore Aldridge’s impact on racism in Europe and the US nearly two centuries ago, paralleling the relevance of Chakrabarti’s work in today’s society. Some intended to brush up on their Shakespeare, too.

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Omari Newton. An Arts Club Theatre Company production on stage at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (2750 Granville St, Vancouver) until April 21. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and information.

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