Lumbly’s Red Velvet performance is inspired

red velvet banner

We have season tickets for the Wednesday preview night at S.F. Playhouse. Although we’ve taken BART, it usually take longer, and it’s more expensive than weeknight parking at the Sutter Stockton Garage. So last week we drove. Wednesday nights usually have less traffic than weekend nights.

But not when there’s an accident on the Bay Bridge.

It took us an hour and 15 minutes to get to S.F. Playhouse–a trip that usually takes 45 minutes. So we arrived ten minutes after the show started. Luckily for us, the house wasn’t full, so the usher kindly seated us on the side, where we wouldn’t step over other audience members.

Lolita C.
Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti

But all the running and anxiety getting to the theater was worth it.

Red Velvet is a wonderful play by a playwright I’d never heard of, Lolita Chakrabarti, set in an era in Europe I knew little about. Nineteenth-century England was having its own racial unrest when Ira Aldridge was the first black man ever to play Othello at London’s Covent Garden. Although now it would be hard to imagine the Moor being played by a white actor, it was standard practice in 1833, when “teapot” acting was the convention. As explained in the program, “Actors would place one hand on their hip (the handle) while the other arm was presented outward to convey passion and emotion (the spout).” It was also common for the theater manager to take the leading role and stay center stage for the duration of the play. One of the many restrictions at the time was that only two theaters in all of London were permitted to put on full-length plays. But revolution was in the air, and Aldridge was at the cutting edge.

Carl Lumbly
Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldridge

Directed by Margo Hall, Red Velvet features a stellar cast and a lovely set. Elena Wright beautifully manages three separate accents to establish the three characters she plays. Richard Louis James is delightfully believable as an old actor stuck in his very British rut, and Susie Damilano proved herself once again to be a versatile actress, as well as the company’s co-founder and producing director. It was fun watching Britney Frazier’s facial expressions as the nearly silent character of Connie, a black servant, as she listened to the arguments between the French director (played by the always-charming Patrick Russell) who brought Aldridge on board and the white British actors who had their own feelings about such casting.

But the highlight of the evening was watching Carl Lumbly play Othello in the play within the play. His stage presence alone is worth the ticket. This production deserves to be seen. And there’s still plenty of time for you to get tickets because it’s playing through the end of June.

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