By: Anna Ziemniak
On January 18th, 2018, the Sophomore students had the opportunity to attend the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier to attend a production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet—a play about the life and career of Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello. In our current unit in English, we have been reading Othello and discussing the history of actors who have had the honor of portraying the title role. Much of our conversations have focused on the role that race and prejudice have played in the casting of this character. Red Velvet closely examines these same issues, connecting the classroom curriculum to real-world, historical context about representation and visibility in drama.
While Red Velvet is not a traditional Shakespearean-style play, it does touch on several components of the content of Othello through an examination of the rehearsal, acting, casting and artistic process. Many scenes include Ira and Ellen Tree, his co-star in the role of Desdemona, practicing how they would like to portray and read their lines as their characters. Students saw the actors put on a “play within a play,” showing the impact that interpretation has on telling a story. More powerfully, the show reveals to audiences the first-hand effects that racism played on Ira’s career as an actor. In one more powerful scene, the audiences sees his castmates of Othello gawk in awkward, anxious silence as he enters rehearsal for the first time. The show moves its viewers to feel the same sense of “otherness” as Ira himself experiences it. More importantly, the show addresses the damaging personal effects that a career of never being “good” enough can have on an individual.
After the show, students stayed back for a special Q&A session with the performers, in which they were able to ask them questions about the show as well as their careers as professional actors. Many Clemente students were selected to ask questions, including Robert Torres, Victor Hernandez and Alex Espinosa. This experience allowed our students to not only learn about what it is like to be an actor as a career, but also to practice their public speaking skills. The trip concluded with lunch on the newly-renovated Navy Pier with beautiful skyline views of Chicago—not a bad way to spend a school day!