Connie is not the most important character to Lolita Chakrabarti, a well-known British actress and the author of Red Velvet.  The play was produced in London at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2014, and during the opening season of the Branagh Theatre Company in London in 2015. In response to its first production, the play received several awards, and was nominated for an Olivier. Chakrabarti has been quite clear in interviews and her own articles that the most important character in the play is Ira Aldridge, a black American who was among the few men of color to play Othello in England in the early nineteenth century [1]. Aldridge later became a celebrated actor on the Continent. When Chakrabarti first learned about Aldridge in 1998, she wondered why she had never heard about this remarkable performer, especially when she was an actor of color in drama school, in search of role models [2]. The primary purpose of the play is to bring Aldridge’s story to light and to inspire other potential actors and playwrights.

Nevertheless, Connie is the character who provides the key to the play’s response to Shakespeare’s Othello. Described in the cast list as “Jamaican, black, thirties,” Connie wears a “crisp uniform” and arranges the tea service so it is “methodically neat” (Scene Two, p. 20). She is the maid who serves the actors at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, all of whom are white, while they await news on the future of their production of Othello in 1833. Edmund Kean, the famous Shakespearean actor, had collapsed because of illness during a performance the night before, and the play either must be canceled, or Kean replaced. Red Velvet is set in the months preceding the vote on the Slavery Abolition Act, passed in August 1833, which eventually ended slavery in most of the British empire. As the actors discuss the issue, they ignore Connie entirely, except when they need something. Their views on slavery range from active support to showy and self-satisfied opposition.

Connie continues to watch and be silent as the company learns that Pierre Laporte, the manager of the company, has replaced Edmund with Ira Aldridge. She watches while the actors meet Aldridge and try to hide their shock that he is black.  She is onstage when Ellen Tree, playing Desdemona, rehearses with Ira, and as Charles, Ellen’s fiancé, becomes passionately upset when Ellen and Ira plan how to increase the tension onstage before they touch each other. Ellen is one of the few actors genuinely open to Ira’s efforts to change the traditional, declamatory “tea-pot” style of acting, in which actors stood passively with one hand on their hip and gestured wildly to express feeling, to the domestic style, in which emotion was expressed more naturally and realistically [3]. Ira’s changes focus on the moments of physical intimacy between Othello and Desdemona, and Charles tries mightily to stop it. Motivated by jealousy and bigotry, Charles intellectualizes his feelings into pseudo-logic: “If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, half wits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics? Then any drunken fool on the street will play Falstaff.” (Scene Two, p. 45)[4].

Connie sits through all of this, and we learn later that she watches the performance that evening, as Ira very successfully moves the audience to a standing ovation. The next day, she hears all the actors except Ira read the patently racist reviews in the newspapers. When Ira enters and asks for the newspapers, all the other actors hurriedly leave. Eventually, through Ira’s questioning, Connie gives up her massive efforts to remain invisible so that she can try to protect Ira from the reviews.  Thus Connie’s analysis of Othello is a form of distraction, analogous to her offering Ira something to eat, and she does both in hopes of preventing him from reading. Yet it is one of the few moments in the play when another character expresses genuine compassion toward Ira – we learn that Connie has been quite aware of what has been going on in the company, and is perhaps the only one who has understood its meaning thus far.

Chakrabarti structures the scene as an alternative to the moment of intimacy in Act Four, Scene Three, between Desdemona and Emilia preceding Desdemona’s death. Connie embodies the “maid called Barbary,” whose song of suffering allows Desdemona to prepare for her own (4.3.26-33). But Chakrabarti also reinvents Emilia’s insight about gender relations into Connie’s insight into race relations, and into the play Othello. Just as Emilia exposes the double standard as a form of male power, so Connie prepares Ira for the betrayal of the white world [5].

Connie tries to exit again.

Ira   Connie…the papers…
Connie  I watch you last night.
Ira   Oh…what did you think?
Connie   It …it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like…that you were so easily turned.
Ira   …I see…
Connie   Why you kill your wife on the back of such careless talk?

Ira doesn’t understand her accent.

Ira   I’m sorry, what was that?
Connie  Why you kill your wife on the back of such careless talk?
Ira   Well that’s the tragedy.
Connie   It’s commonsense tho’, sir, marrying into that worl’s a mistake. Can’t trust no-one…Everybody smilin’ like them a friend but…I fin’ mo often than not, people mostly have two face, don’t you think? An’ when you show ’em a weak spot them rub it.
Ira   You got a lot from it…
Connie   It upset me.
Ira   That’s the beauty of theatre…it’s…it’s about…getting under your skin.
Connie   I fin’ life does that anyway.

(Scene 5, pp. 77-8)

The play juxtaposes Ira’s appreciation for dramatic form with Connie’s recognition of and reaction against bigotry. She of course has the reviews in mind as she tries to protect Ira from them, but she also thinks of the play. For Connie, the white world includes not only what Othello, and, also, Ira, have married into, since Ira also has a white wife, but, for Connie, the white world constructs the plot of Othello itself. Only in such a world would a black man be so easily turned against his wife; only in such a world would a black man kill his wife on the back of such careless talk. She recognizes that a person of color “can’t trust no-one” – neither Iago nor Shakespeare, as they hatch their plots to discredit Othello. “People mostly have two face” – Iago, of course, but also Shakespeare, as he presents his heroic Moor only to undermine him completely.  Connie adds, “An’ when you show ’em a weak spot them rub it.” Iago knows about Othello’s weak spot: his dependence on Desdemona (1.3.169-170, 3.3.98-99). But it is Shakespeare who rubs this weakness into the violence that characterizes Othello by the end of the play.

After Connie’s analysis, Ira admits that Connie has understood a great deal about the play, and perhaps about Ira’s own engagement with the white world. But he pulls back from this recognition to celebrate the power of the theatre. What for Ira is the grandeur of tragedy is for Connie the abuse of the white world. What Ira appreciates as tragic catharsis is for Connie a form of racism that she faces everyday. Ira’s love for the theatre, his love of red velvet curtains – “a deep promise of what’s to come, the sweat of others embedded in the pile” (Scene One, p. 12) – gives him the naiveté which allows him to say, apparently without any irony, “It’s…it’s about…getting under your skin.” Oblivious to the skin color prejudice he is about to experience, his love for the theatre is one way he has married into the white world, and it gives him the vulnerability that Connie senses.

Connie sums it up in her description of a previous mistress, “I had this mistress once grew attached to me, kept me close by an’ tol’ me all she problems, intimate problems, sir, but when five poun’ went missin’ she grabbed me by my ear like a dog and fling me out” (Scene 5, p. 79).  This demonstrates that “people see what them a look fo’” because, despite any intimacy established or success gained by Connie, Ira, or Othello in the white world, when a crisis occurs, the mask of friendliness drops, and they are blamed for it.

Chakrabarti demonstrates that this statement can be applied not only to how Ira is eventually treated by his friend Pierre Laporte, the theatre manager, but also to how Shakespeare treats Othello in his play. In a scene that follows immediately after Connie tries to warn Ira, Pierre tells Ira that he has been fired. Ira is less horrified by the decision of “the board” than by Pierre’s agreement that this is the proper thing to do, and that Ira has no recourse. Pierre defends himself in his response to the theatre’s board:

“I told them in the heat of the moment you lost yourself in the play, your true nature surfaced and you descended into…

(Ira lunges forward, outraged, out of control.  He attacks Pierre…)

Look at yourself. This is who you really are…” (Scene Six, p. 88).

As Connie puts it, “When five poun’ went missin’ she grabbed me by my ear like a dog and fling me out.” Ira’s good friend Pierre buys into stereotypes at the very moment he should reject them, when he is put under pressure by the “important men.” Pierre assumes that the passion expressed by Ira during the performance was not a sign of his acting ability, but the revelation of a violent nature. Indeed, Ira’s anger at his friend’s betrayal is used by Pierre as proof.

Thus Chakrabarti analyzes the turn to violence in Othello. People like Shakespeare “see what them a look fo’ ˮ — for instance the epilepsy that proves Othello is one of those “credulous fools” bated by Iago, rather than the “noble Moor whom our full Senate/ call all in all sufficient” (4.1.43, 257-8). We might imagine Shakespeare’s response to his character in Pierre’s words, speaking to Othello’s murder of his wife: “Your true nature surfaced.”


[1] See Ayanna Thompson’s “Introduction” to Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (Second edition, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2014), about the problem with citing Aldridge as the “first” person of African descent to play Othello in London.  All subsequent citations will be to the second edition.

[2] Lolita Chakrabarti, “Red Velvet – Rediscovering Ira Aldridge,” Writers’ Room, BBC, July 17, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/entries/885fd420-c3a0-3aac-8fa5-4dd3adacce8b, accessed July 18, 2016.

[3] Alan S. Downer, “Players and Painted Stage: Nineteenth Century Acting,” PMLA 61:2 (June 1946): pp. 522-576.  Ellen’s treatment of Ira becomes much more problematic as the play proceeds.

[4] Kate Kellaway in “Adrian Lester on Ira Aldridge: ‘He was a Pioneer for Black Actors,” (The Guardian, 6 October 2012), quotes Lester: “When intelligent people have racist thoughts they intellectualise feelings. The basis may be: you are different, I don’t like you, and you’re taking something which should be mine – but they add an intellectual spin.  It becomes an argument about theatre and art.”  https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/07/red-velvet-tricycle-lester-chakrabarti-rubasingham-interview, accessed July 18, 2016.

[5] William Shakespeare, Othello, ed. Kim F. Hall (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007); see especially 4.3.99-100.  All subsequent citations will be to this edition.

 

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