Written by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Cherissa Richards. At Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave., through Dec. 18. crowstheatre.com or 647-341-7390, ext. 1010
Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play is an ambitious work of activist theatre history served up in an entertaining package of 19th-century backstage drama.
It is based on the true story of Ira Aldridge, the first Black actor to play Othello on a major stage in London, England. Born in New York, Aldridge pursued a career in Europe knowing that race laws and racial bias would hold him back at home.
While the play is flawed, it’s an amazing vehicle for its leading actor and Allan Louis offers an excellent performance, anchoring a fine cast of eight under Cherissa Richards’ strong direction. A commanding actor with a gorgeously resonant speaking voice, Louis embraces the opportunity to deliver the driven, voracious and complex character Chakrabarti has written.
The central action of the play, billed as an imagined version of true events, homes in on Aldridge’s big break in 1833 after the renowned actor Edmund Kean collapsed onstage at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden while playing Othello and a replacement was needed pronto.
Gathering backstage the next day to hear theatre manager Pierre Laporte’s (Kyle Blair) suggested solution, the actors buzz about protests just outside the theatre over the proposed abolition of slavery. Efficiently, Chakrabarti sets up the broader context of race-related tensions into which Laporte drops the slow-diffusing bombshell that Aldridge will take over for Kean in the role.
Slow-diffusing because the younger members of the acting company know that Aldridge is Black, but Kean’s odious son Charles (Jeff Lillico) and the preening older actor Bernard (Patrick McManus) do not, making for significant, tension-filled awkwardness when Aldridge arrives. The systemic problem that Chakrabarti is confronting is that the character of Othello is Black but had been historically played by white actors, often wearing blackface.
Charles and Bernard are representative figures of the racism that continued to keep experienced actors such as Aldridge from playing major Shakespeare roles.
At this point, Chakrabarti brings another issue into the mix: Aldridge brings change not only in terms of racial representation, but because he espouses a new approach to acting that challenges the florid Romantic style that Kean’s company practices.
This may be historically true, but it prompts a short and improbably effective acting lesson in which Aldridge turns leading lady Ellen Tree’s (Ellen Denny) head toward his new artistic ways and a spark of sexual chemistry flares between them as well. While Louis and Denny play this and subsequent scenes very well, it strains credibility that a whole artistic tradition could be rerouted so quickly.
A further weakness of the play is a creaky framing device in which Aldridge, doggedly touring in Eastern Europe in his waning years, is pestered by a young female journalist (Amelia Sargisson) to talk about his past glories in England, cueing his memories of their less than fully glorious nature. This flashback/storytelling device is overfamiliar from film (think “Titanic”), but this frame nonetheless allows Sargisson to shine in the first in a number of memorable roles, including progressive young actor Betty and Aldridge’s exhausted first wife, Margaret.
Starr Domingue is also powerful as Connie, a Jamaican woman who assists the theatre company and bears silent but attentive witness to the action until she gets her chance to make an intervention with Aldridge.
The playwriting is at its richest and most complex in a climactic standoff between Aldridge and Laporte, in which the ambiguities of Aldridge’s character and paradoxes of his situation come into full focus. He’s accused of manhandling Ellen onstage, which he calls out as a projection of Othello’s character onto him (in Shakespeare’s play, Othello strangles his white wife to death out of jealousy).
But the accusations aren’t necessarily wrong and Laporte’s frustrated that Aldridge did not take his advice to ease into his performance rather than come at it full throttle. Here Chakrabarti makes some excellent and subtle points about the difficulty of change and the challenges and limitations of allyship.
Laporte is an underwritten character (the nature of his friendship with and loyalty to Aldridge remains frustratingly vague) and Blair plays him as restrained and professional almost to a fault: there still may be more room for that characterization, and the relationship between the two characters, to grow.
Julie Fox’s set design echoes the play’s structure in presenting multiple frames for the action. Appropriately, a red velvet curtain, glowing under Arun Srinivasan’s lights, hangs over and around the stage, and there’s also an internal archway creating another level of action in the backstage scenes. A sloping hardwood floor and period-specific footlights are other lovely touches.
Ming Wong’s luxurious costumes and Thomas Ryder Payne’s detailed sound design — from a pre-show rainstorm to almost aggressively sprightly period music for transitions — place the production convincingly in its time and place.
This was Chakrabarti’s debut play and that inexperience shows in the writing; but so too does her passion for this subject matter and its relevance to today, as Black, Indigenous and artists of colour continue to labour for full and appropriate representation on and behind stages.
Richardson’s production leans into the material’s entertainment value as well as its power to educate, and the matinee audience at the performance I attended laughed and gasped throughout, and chattered excitedly afterward about the timely nature of the material and the fascination of the real story that inspired it.
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