The Ohio State University Department of Theatre will present "Red Velvet," with guest director Ted Lange, beginning Thursday in the Roy Bowen Theatre.
The play “Red Velvet” dramatizes a pivotal moment in theater history and racial integration — when a black man first took the stage to fill the role of Othello.
The Ohio State University theater department will present British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 drama, which will open Thursday on campus.
“This play, about breaking down barriers in theater, is very relevant to today,” guest director Ted Lange said.
Set in 1833 in London, the two-act play-within-a-play revolves around Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), a young black American actor who takes over the Moorish title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello” when the star actor Edmund Kean collapses onstage.
“Up to that point, no one other than a white man had ever appeared as Othello. To bring in an actual black man to play an actual black man was revolutionary,” Lange said.
“How monumental his personality had to be.”
OSU junior Sterling Wesley plays Aldridge.
“Stepping out and being vulnerable as a black man, he set a precedent. ... Aldridge went for it. It came back to bite him, but he still did it. I admire his courage,” Wesley said.
Born a free man in New York City, Aldridge became a servant to an English actor and began doing small roles in England before unexpectedly becoming a star in “Othello.”
“He considers himself equal to the rest of the cast,” Wesley said, “but deep down, he has doubts about whether he can do this.”
Although theatergoers admired Aldridge’s performance, some London newspapers objected to his elevation.
“They focused on what Aldridge did wrong, even though the audience applauded his first performance,” Wesley said.
Aldridge’s flirtatious relationship with leading lady Ellen Tree fueled controversy.
“They touch and hug. ... Ira kissing her hand in the play causes a negative reaction,” Wesley said. “The newspaper accuses Ira of being too rough with the actress, pawing her.”
OSU junior Betsy Huggins plays Tree, who co-starred as Desdemona.
“She was talented and renowned as a leading actress and fairly outspoken,” Huggins said. “At the beginning, she’s apprehensive, ... but she takes a liking to Aldridge soon enough. She’s not prejudiced. In fact, she feels a black actor playing Othello makes the play more realistic.”
Lange views “Red Velvet” as entertaining because it offers both drama and comedy.
“But by the end of the evening, you’ve also learned something,” he said.
Lange, who has directed plays at colleges across the country, has enjoyed working with OSU students.
“This cast is wonderful. ... I forget how much I like teaching and directing students,” he said. “These guys have reminded me of how much fun I have doing that.”
Lange, who appeared at Ohio State two decades ago in his one-man play “Behind the Mask: An Evening with Paul Laurence Dunbar,” is best known for his regular role as bartender Isaac Washington on the TV sitcom “The Love Boat,” a popular ABC series that was on the air from 1977 to 1987.
“Isaac was a charming guy who set you up with a drink and got you to relax, talk and enjoy the cruise,” Lange said.
“‘Love Boat,’ one of the top-five shows for seven years of our 10-year run, really pushed me out there as a celebrity, with 70 million people watching us on a premiere episode,” he said.
Since then, Lange broadened his career into directing and playwriting.
“If I’m not acting, I direct. If I’m not directing, I write,” he said.
“I’ve been in show business for 52 years, and sometimes I don’t realize that what I know, they don’t know. So I want to pass it on and pay it forward.”