A ticket stub from Langston Hughes reading at 92Y in 1942!
We celebrate Langston on Feb 23 with the premiereof Young Man Langston, a dramatic reading from the letters of Langston Hughes with two of New York’s finest stage actors —Aaron Clifton Moten and John Douglas Thompson. There are discounted tickets for those 35 and under.
John Douglas Thompson plays Ira Aldrich in Red Velvet. Photo by Enrico Spada. A conversation about Red Velvet at Shakespeare & Company with John Douglas Thompson and Daniela Varon by Larry Murray With performances beginning today, it is through the new play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti that we finally get to meet Ira Aldridge, the great African-American Shakespeare actor who made history with…
Below are few exchanges from a profile of classical actor John Douglas Thompson, who’s learning clowning from Yale Drama School professor Christopher Bayes. This profile – along with Broadway Sizzle, which is documentary-like in its faithfulness to musical theater workshops – remind me of the work, sacrifice, and fabulous diva drama that can come along with acting:
“You have to start singing little songs about things as you do them,” Bayes said. “A washing-the-dishes song, or It’s recycling day. Be open to the possibility of lyricism…When you run to the subway, and you just make it, and the doors go bing-bong, you need to say, ‘Sweet!’ so everyone can hear you in the car. And when you miss it, say–” “Fuck.” Bayes shrugged. “I liked to say, 'Aw, nuts!’”
…“What if I don’t get from the audience what I want?” Thompson asked. “It’s because you didn’t bring it,” Bayes said. “It’s never the audience’s fault. You have to love that thing you brought. Otherwise, you brought an abstraction. You try. You sing badly, but you try.” “And failure?” “The more you love something, the greater the possibility of tragedy,” Bayes said. “I’ve brought something that isn’t understood, it fails, then there is the effort to reestablish it. Or you begin to cry.”
…“Find a sense of play,” Bayes said. Thompson seemed unsure. “There’s certain parts of your talent that you have confidence in,” Bayes said. “Right,” Thompson said, brightening. “That’s not what I’m interested in,” Bayes replied.
L-R: Kelley Curran as Ellen Tree, Joe Tapper as Pierre La Porte, Aarpm Nartz as Henry Forrester, Malcolm Ingram as Bernard Warde, and Christianna Nelson as Betty Lovell. Photo by Enrico Spada.
L-R: Christianna Nelson and Kelley Curran.
John D. Thompson as Ira Aldridge and Kelley Curran as Ellen Tree.
L-R Christianna Nelson as Betty Lovell, Henry Forrester as Aaron Bartz, Ben Chase as Charles Kean, Malcolm Ingram as Bernard Warde, Ravine Patterson as connie, Kelley Curran as Ellen Tree.
All photos by Enrico Spada
Red Velvet brings to life the day Othello was finally played by a black actor Theatre review by Larry Murray
At the exact moment that Ira Aldridge stepped on the stage at London’s Theatre Royal Covent Garden, they were debating the Slavery Abolition Act in England. It was 1833 and until then white actors in blackface had always played the Moor in Shakespeare’s Othello, a custom that had begun in Shakespeare’s day and every day thereafter, this custom held sway upon the major stages until Aldridge stepped in for ailing actor Edmund Kean on that fateful night. He was the first black actor to play Othello on a major London stage. Less than a decade earlier he had emigrated to London from the US, where he was born, and had been limited up until then to a variety of roles in the small theatres in London.
The playwright Lolita Chakrabarti set down this history in the play Red Velvet which opened last night at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The play, as been performed in America only once before this, in a limited engagement by the British Tricycle company at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2014. This production, directed by Daniela Varon, is the first American production.
It stars John Douglas Thompson who, in an extended interview with him last week, found many parallels between his life had that of Aldridge. From the first moment Thompson strode the stage as Aldridge, he dominated, nay, commanded our full attention. The force between Thompson and Aldridge is strong. You can feel it, see it and admire it, for it radiates from the thrust stage of the Tina Packer Playhouse.
This production is more of a collaborative one than most since it is director Varon’s choice to hew as closely as possible to the stylistic eccentricities of the mid 19th Century, with its almost baroque and florid conventions, jokingly referred to on stage as the teapot school of acting. In Chakrabarti’s retelling of history, Aldridge fought many of its conventions, striving for a bit of realism, being undermined by the conservative Charles Keen (Ben Chase) who fights him every step of the way. When, as Othello, he is required to fight with his wife Desdemona (in the play she is the actress Ellen Tree, brilliantly played by Kelly Curran) his simple act of grabbing her during the performance raises the hackles of the press, the public and many in the company itself. That moment of realism leads to the production being cancelled so that Aldridge would be prevented from appearing on the Covent Garden theatre again in the future.
All of this is theatre at its finest, with superb performances not only from the principals, but from the entire company which includes the tightly focused Malcolm Ingram, Joe Tapper as entrepreneur Pierre Laporte, Ravin Patterson as Connie, and Aaron Bartz as Henry Forrester. Christianna Nelson took on triple roles as Halina Wozniak, Betty Lovell and Margaret Aldridge, Ira’s wife.
Red Velvet comes very close to being more than an important historical play, but the play and production itself could use considerable tightening up. Starting with rethinking or eliminating the first and last ten minutes, both of which have serious problems. While both are important to telling Aldridge’s full story, the opening scene with its tangled languages, accents and convoluted interactions was just plain annoying to this member of the audience. Some of the dialogue was in partial German, partial heavily accented English and with lots of misunderstandings between the characters themselves, not to mention the audience.
The curse of Freytag’s Pyramid is at work again at the end. Developed in 1863, it mandates that the dramatic arc include exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. Many prefer Aristotle’s simpler protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe – that is a beginning, middle and end – since the final scene simply undermined the impact of the previous, penultimate one which could just as easily served as the conclusion of the play. In essence these scenes serve as a prelude and epilogue and might be better labeled as such.
John Douglas Thompson
The director and cast strived for authenticity in recreating the acting style of the 1800’s and brought in Adrienne Kapstein to help recreate the physical style of the period, and while still a bit stiff, succeeded successfully on stage. What disappointed was the between scenes choreography which made the resetting of the stage both cumbersome and lengthy. I am of the belief that if something does not advance the plot, get rid of it. In a sense watching Red Velvet became a bit like television at those moments, the vague circling scene changes taking the play of annoying commercials. You just sit there waiting for the play to resume.
That said, I loved Red Velvet, and the performance by John Douglas Thompson is indelibly etched in my mind’s memory, as is that of Kelley Curran, casting the two together is a perfect fit. And the choice of Red Velvet at the final offering of the summer season is one that was well made by Shakespeare & Company.
Audiences in Europe wanted to see him in Shakespearean roles rather than in the racial melodramas and farces that were popular in the British isles. As a consequence, Aldridge concentrated almost exclusively on performing as Othello, Shylock, Macbeth, and Richard III. In the course of his travels he won more major international awards and honors, often conferred by royalty, than any other actor of his day.” – from Bernth Lindfors’ biography of Ira Aldridge
Shakespeare & Company presents Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti; Directed by Daniela Varon; Set Designer, John McDermott; Costume Designer, Moria Sine Clinton; Sound Designer, Amy Altadonna; Lighting Designer, Matthew Miller; Movement Consultant, Adrienne Kapstein; Choreographer, Kristin Wold; Fight Choreographer, Kevin G. Coleman; Voice Coach, Elizabeth Ingram; Dialect Coach, Susan Cameron; Stage Manager, Diane Healy.
Cast: Aaron Bartz, Ben Chase, Kelley Curran, Malcolm Ingram, Christianna Nelson, Ravin Patterson, Joe Tapper, John Douglas Thompson. Two hours fifteen minutes plus an intermission, August 6 – September 13, 2015 at the Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA. Shakespeare & Company
“What if I don’t get from the audience what I want?” the stage actor John Douglas Thompson asked.
“It’s because you didn’t bring it,” Christopher Bayes, an instructor at the Yale School of Drama, said. “It’s never the audience’s fault. You have to love that thing you brought. Otherwise, you brought an abstraction. You try. You sing badly, but you try.”
Stage Secret by Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker, May 21, 2012
John Douglas Thompson will narrate Copland’s Lincoln Portrait on the July 4 weekend. He is seen here in a rare production of Tamburlaine at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience. Photo: Gerry Goodstein Because of a health matter requiring immediate attention, Jessye Norman has, with great regret, been forced to withdraw from this Friday evening’s Opening Night at Tanglewood program. In her place,…
An old article, but one very much worth reading. John Douglas Thompson is one of my favourite actors – see him in anything you can, if you have the chance. I’d also recommend listening to the “Excerpt” audio file posted on the side – his Othello is possibly the best this world will ever see.