Dion Johnston (front) in Chicago Shakespeare's Red Velvet Credit: Liz Lauren

Now that Chicago’s been granted, in quick succession, two full-scale, well-acted productions of Lolita Chakrabarti’s biodrama Red Velvet (Raven Theatre’s 2016 version closed a year and three days before Chicago Shakespeare Theater opened its current staging), it’s clear how singular an anti-achievement Chakrabarti’s play is. She manages to take the fascinating, complicated life of Ira Aldridge, perhaps the 19th century’s only African-American international theatrical star, and drain from it most everything that makes it fascinating and complicated. In its place she fabricates a tale that loses coherence under even moderate scrutiny.

Chakrabarti gets enough of the basics right to set things in motion, ably abetted by sure-footed director Gary Griffin. In the spring of 1833, Edmund Kean, one of London’s most popular actors, collapsed in the middle of his star turn as Othello at the renowned Covent Garden Theatre. The following night Aldridge went on in his stead, igniting a political and theatrical firestorm. Some newspapers were savage. Figaro in London pledged to offer Aldridge “such a chastisement as must drive him from the stage he has dishonoured, and force him to find in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” After two performances the production closed, at which point Figaro crowed it had “hunted the Nigger from the boards.”

For Chakrabarti, such vitriol exemplifies workaday 19th-century racism, akin to the chilliness—and overt hostility—Aldridge receives from fellow castmates when he shows up for rehearsal and they’re aghast to discover he’s black (a difficult plot point to swallow considering Aldridge had made his London debut eight years earlier and maintained a steady stage career as “the African Roscius”). But much larger and more specific forces fueled the outrage. The abolitionist movement in England was putting tremendous pressure on Parliament to end the slave trade in all British colonies, and a vote was scheduled that very spring. Through pure happenstance, Aldridge became an overnight propaganda icon for both abolitionist and anti-abolitionist forces. The best Chakrabarti can do to inflect this sweeping political narrative is to let the audience hear an angry crowd outside early in the play, never to be heard from again.

Chakrabarti also imagines that London’s reception of a black Othello at Covent Garden was universally negative (it wasn’t). Unaccountably, her Aldridge seems entirely unprepared for such a response—despite having left his native New York precisely because he believed racist animus made a successful theatrical career there impossible. Just as curiously, his castmates seem mortified reading the negative reviews, even those who opposed his appearing on stage because of his race. It’s as though Chakrabarti jettisons historical credulity in order to drive home the point that racism is ugly.

In another perplexing turn, Chakrabarti suggests Aldridge’s failure at Covent Garden not only severely hobbled his career (in truth, he was across the Thames a few days later in Othello at the Surrey Theatre) but ultimately drove him to madness. She opens her play with an aged, demented Aldridge, badgered by a young female journalist (whose sole purpose in the play is to point out that women also faced enormous career hurdles in the 19th century). One question haunts the ensuing two and a half hours: What caused a capable, talented, strong-willed man to lose his reason? Since Chakrabarti shows us almost nothing of Aldridge’s post-Coventry Garden life, she offers only one unsatisfying answer.

(In case you’re wondering, Aldridge didn’t go mad. At the time of his death, he’d spent three decades touring Europe as an actor and lecturer, and he’d just finished negotiating a 100-performance tour of America that would have remunerated him handsomely. He’d made a London return in 1855 to great acclaim.)

It seems Chakrabarti wants to reduce Aldridge to an uncompromising, trailblazing social justice crusader whose political idealism leaves him unable to abide a less-than-ideal reality. This makes things relatively easy for an audience, but it leaves actor Dion Johnstone fishing for depth where little exists. More importantly, the revision erases perhaps the most fascinating thing about Aldridge: his pandering to racist audiences. While on tour, he routinely followed Othello with a performance of The Padlock, an 18th-century comedy about a drunken, stingy, bumbling West Indian servant named Mungo. Was Aldridge subverting racist stereotypes by lampooning them, or playing the mercenary to a racist marketplace? As with so many of the most interesting aspects of Aldridge’s life, Chakrabarti doesn’t appear to care.  v