New FIU Play Breaks Down Blackface and Interracial Sexual Tension

The acting cast of "Red Velvet" bow to the audience after the final dress rehearsal. "Red Velvet" features themes of racism, sexual tension, drama and historical change. The production runs from Nov. 15 to Nov. 24. Anna Radinsky/PantherNOW.

Christopher Ramirez & Anna Radinsky/PantherNOW Staff

Hands are one of the most important themes of the new FIU Theatre’s production of “Red Velvet.”

An “oooh” comes from the audience as Ira Aldridge, the first black man to play the lead role in “Othello” by William Shakespeare, played by Warren Welds, is rejected from a handshake from the unpopular actor at the time Charles Kean, played by Samuel Krogh.

Sexual tension sizzles in the air as Aldridge kisses the hand of Ellen Tree, played by Shadya Muvdi, in front of the white cast of “Othello.”

Before Aldridge played the lead role of “Othello” in 1833, white actors would play the role in blackface even though the character in the play was black.

The play is set in 1833 London when the Slave Emancipation Act gave all slaves in the British empire their freedom, 32 years before the United States did.

“For a play that’s based in the past, it really touches on what goes on today,” said theater sophomore Nathalie Ordorez.

The play follows an important moment of Aldridge’s life when he has to struggle through racism and stereotyping as his fellow actors get used to his presence.

The play not only talks about racial issues, but also feminist ones.

“My girlfriend played Halina, the news reporter in the play, so I’ve spent a lot of time talking to her about her role,” said theater senior Brandon Urrutia. “I really enjoyed the button up at the end where the play showed that women in the workforce suffered on their own just as Ira did in the theater world.”

“Red Velvet” was written by Lolita Chakrabarti in 2017 and is directed by FIU associate professor Phillip M. Church.

“The show is a play within a play,” said Church.

The production plays on different acting styles and the transition that Aldridge made from dramatization to realistic acting.

Aldridge was known as one of the pioneers of realism in acting, which was highly controversial and political at the time because it was a style that used realistic instead of dramatized movements.

At times, the play is unpredictable and makes the audience question if what is happening is real, effectively portraying the shock value of Welds’s acting.

The character of Aldridge, played by Welds, summarizes the relationship between controversy and theater.

“That’s the beauty of theater: it gets under your skin,” Aldridge says in the play.

“Red Velvet”’s key theme is its portrayal of cultural boundaries. A person’s identity or looks may be the only facet that the public will focus on to limit and oppress. Ira Aldridge has deep personal flaws. However, prejudice is ultimately what holds him back, a notion similar to contemporary struggles.

Subtle hints support this throughout the play as the character of Pierre LaPorte, played by Shawn Scarpitta, comments on Aldridge saying, “he makes the play more current.”

The play also expressed its diversity through different dialects and languages spoken.

Actors had to learn different dialects, including Jamaican, Polish, English, and spoke sentences in languages, including German.

The incorporation of dream like transitions, thought-provoking premises and historical scenarios make it a captivating play to catch.

The show will run from Nov. 15 to Nov. 24. from 8 to 10 p.m., except for Sundays, which will run from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Wertheim Performing Arts Center at FIU’s Modesto Maidique Campus.

The cost of admission is $15 for general admission, $12 for seniors, faculty and staff, and $10 for FIU students with a valid ID.

Bring a sweater, sit as close to the stage as you can and maybe read Othello on SparkNotes.

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