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The powerful and moving RED VELVET is one of the most important plays now on stage here in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Playhouse presents the West Coast premiere through June 25th. Ira Aldridge, an American-born black actor, born in 1807 became one of the most recognized and highly paid performers of his day. Beautifully directed by Margo Hall, RED VELVET, follows Aldridge’s life and struggles as the first black actor to perform in London. Hall has assembled a stunning cast headed by the remarkable Carl Lumbly, as Aldridge who opens the story as his career is ending. The icon actor was born in New York to free parents. In his teens, he worked as an actor at the African Grove Theatre. It was the first African-American theater in America. The theater was set afire by extremists so he immigrated to Liverpool. He spent years in the U.K. and played the title roles in Shakespeare’s “Othello,”Macbeth” and “Richard III” to positive audiences. But the London press was not friendly, and continually referred to his on stage presents as not appropriate. One paper stated, “It would be the same as a drunk playing the role of Falstaff.”

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti RED VELVET tells the dramatic story of the black actor as he prepares to take over the role of “Othello” at the Royal Covent Garden Theater in London in the year 1833. After his performance, the press is outraged that a black man is playing the part of the Moore and he is forced to leave the show by the Board of Directors. Aldridge was married to a white British woman, Margaret Gill, played by Elena Wright. They were married for 40 years until her death and then he married a Swedish woman. He received honors from King Frederick William III and the Czar of Russia and is the only black actor, out of 33 actors, to be honored with a chair and plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The story moves to an elegant rehearsal hall designed by Gary English, where we find a group of actors regrouping after their Othello lead has called out sick. Wright who plays three women leads is now an English actress, Betty Lovell, working alongside others to ready Aldridge for his opening night. Their director Pierre LaPorte played by local favorite Patrick Russell assures his company that he has found the perfect actor to play the Moore. Lumbly plays his role with keen emotional passion. He sees himself as a consummate actor and refuses to ease into his character to allow the audience to accept him, despite the pleas of Pierre, who is zealously played by Russell. Susi Damilano deftly portrays Ellen Tree, a respected actress, who was engaged to Charles Kean, a junior member of the Covent Garden Company. Kean is eagerly played by Tim Kniffin, and is convincingly angry that his fiancé has been “manhandled” by Aldridge during a violent scene in the play.

Act one ends with Lumbly and Damilano in a scene from OTHELLO, when the stoic King accuses his Queen about the infamous missing handkerchief. It is very compelling as their acting a play within a play is intense convincing Shakespeare. The ensemble in this production of RED VELVET portray their roles skillfully with an ease of the style of the era and emotional depth. Margo Hall’s direction is elegant and powerful bringing Lumbly down stage for most of his monologues in the second act. Britney Frazier plays Connie, a young black maid,who sits at a background table serving tea; Hall uses her so effectively subtle as the only other black actor in the play who is easily the focus of her design. Richard Louis James and Devin O’ Brien fill out the other male roles and they both are exceptional.

English’s design also includes a projection design that opens the Playhouse stage with grand England theatre mood with elegant red drapes and a hanging chandelier. Kurt Landisman’s stunning light design is highlighted by downstage spots and large vintage lighting from the side of the stage design. The dressing room that opens and closes the play is moody and ghostly as Ira ends his career in whiteface as King Lear. Abra Berman costumes are visually historical and vintage, the women's gowns more than convincing hoop skirts and Tabbitha McBride's wonderful wigs. The perfect sound effects of Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s design fill the SF Playhouse with the age of that era.

Aldridge, despite the intense racism, achieved success in Europe including Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Serbia and Imperial Russia playing to packed houses. The story ends with the aging actor in white face makeup and long white wig as he is about to go on stage as Lear in Poland. He died there in 1867 at the age of 60 from pneumonia. Two of his several children went on to become opera stars. Despite Aldridge’s achievements and recognition, he was quickly forgotten after his death and is buried in Lodz, Poland. RED VELVET is a “must see” and the best play now on stage this early summer. Carl Lumbly will bring you to tears.He is a truly an exceptional inspiration to the ode of the theater and to other actors.

San Francisco Playhouse presents

the West Coast Premiere of


Written by Lolita Chakrabarti

Directed by Margo Hall

Through June 30,

SF Playhouse 450 Post Street, San Francisco,

2nd Floor of the Kensington Park Hotel.

For tickets ($20-$120) or more information,

contact The San Francisco Playhouse box office at 415-677-9596,

Photos by Ken Levin

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