Actor JuCoby Johnson talks about his character in Walking Shadow Theatre Company's new production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, a 2012 play about race, allyship, challenging traditions, and the future of the theatre.
The Southern Theater: Describe your character a bit for us. Who is the Ira Aldridge we'll be seeing in Walking Shadow's production?
JuCoby Johnson: Ira Aldridge is a hidden figure in the history of Shakespeare greats. He was an African-American man who moved to England to go to University. He toured a number of shows around the provinces of England and, in 1833, he replaced renowned actor, Edmund Kean, as Othello at Covent Garden after Kean collapsed onstage. His performance caused a huge stir and after only two performances he was dismissed and the theatre went dark for the first time in its history. He spent the remainder of his life touring Europe and played almost every major Shakespearean character in the canon. Ira went on to achieve great acclaim and recognition, but never played in a major theatre in London ever again. In Red Velvet, we'll see Ira at the age of 60 at a theatre in Lodz, Poland and at the age of 26 the night he played Othello at Covent Garden in 1833.
ST: Could you talk about what makes the play timely — both for our country and for the theatre?
JJ: Diversifying and rethinking the way we do classical stories is a big conversation taking place on a national scale in the theatre. This play goes back to a time when a black actor even stepping on stage at all was a revolutionary act. We look at this moment in history and must question how far we've actually come. Who do we allow to tell a story? What sacrifices do we require people to make in order to tell a classical story?
It also takes a look at what it really means to be an ally. How far are you willing to go to defend someone else? Many characters in this play talk a good game, but falter when it comes to taking action. I think that struggle is very timely to where we are as a country.
ST: What about Ira's story most resonates with you?
JJ: Ira was a huge proponent for truth in his work. He believed that the truth was the most important part of telling a story. That is a belief that I share with him. No amount of technique can replace the ability to empathize and find the truth inside of every character and situation. Ira's need to express his own truth through the truth of the character's he portrayed is something I can connect to 100%.
ST: What about the show are you most interested in seeing how audiences react to?
JJ: I'm interested to see how audiences react to the moments where the characters themselves are acting their parts in Othello. The style of the period is very grand and almost melodramatic to today's standards. It's a style we've moved away from and it'll be interesting how audiences take it in.