“Playing bad guys is great”

‘Red Velvet’
Until July 17
Shakespeare Theater Company
Michael R. Klein Theater at Lansburgh, 450 7th St., NW
$35-$120
Shakespearetheatre.org

After a five-year absence from the stage, actor Jaye Ayres-Brown (queer, gender fluid, non-binary and trans-woman) returns to the stage as a despicable cisgender Londoner in playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s ‘Red Velvet’ at the company’s Shakespeare Theater Klein Theater.

Possessing a genuine presence and warmth, 27-year-old Ayres-Brown plays Charles Kean, the smug and questionably talented son of legendary English actor Edmund Kean. Charles is also the essential antagonist in Chakrabarti’s exploration of the life and career of famed early 19th-century African-American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom).

When Aldridge was asked to play Othello on the London stage, Charles, who was to star alongside the star as the evil Iago, left the show. It’s 1833 and Charles is deeply opposed to a black actor playing a black lead character, and he’s even less happy that his real-life fiancee Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest) is testing Othello’s romantic obsession, Desdemona, in the production.

Behind the scenes, Ayres-Brown is Aldridge’s biggest fan: “He was way ahead of his time. One hundred years before Stanislavsky, Aldridge introduced a proto-naturalistic approach to acting. In retrospect, it’s hard to disentangle the audience’s reaction to it. He was something so different. But were white audiences reacting to his innovative acting style or showing his racial bias?

“In the play, I’m that bias,” the New York-based actor says.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Joan Crawford said, “I love playing bitches. There’s a lot of bitch in every woman – a lot in every man.

JAYE AYRES-MARRON: Oh yeah, playing bad guys is great. Ira Aldridge was such a spectacularly heroic person, an incredibly gifted and resourceful artist, he deserves a good villain to fight, a meaningful villain that makes us admire the hero even more. And Amari [Cheatom]the actor who plays Aldridge, is a great entertainer who also deserves a strong antagonist.

BLADE: Did you enjoy your stay in London 1833?

AYRES-BROWN: No, I hate that! But my character loves it. Charles enjoys immense privilege – racial and professional. He is a cisgender white supremacist attached to the patriarchal power structure of the time. But I, Jaye as a person, am less than charmed by it.

BLADE: But aesthetically, it’s fine enough?

AYRES-BROWN: Yes, You-Shin Chen’s sets are impeccable, and the period costumes are beautifully rendered by Rodrigo Muñoz. Sometimes I feel a bit like a drag king in Charles’ outfit. It is a performance of masculinity.

I have extensive gender experience in which I include masculinity and think I have something interesting to say and a unique perspective. Language about gender nonconforming didn’t exist in 1833, but people did exist, coping as best they could. Everyone was either male or female. Who knows today how one of these characters would identify?

My goal is to put as much humanity as possible into the character. The play is deeply thought out with questions about who gets to play what roles. And I try to bring the maximum of myself to each role regardless of gender.

BLADE: Charles is very far from who you are?

AYRES-BROWN: For me, the work of playing a character like this stems in large part from the racist lessons that all Americans learn. Stereotypes are things I was exposed to growing up white in America. There’s the initial desire to distance and highlight the contrasts, but ultimately you have to tap into your own experience even if it’s uncomfortable.

BLADE: What is it like working in live theater again?

AYRES-BROWN: Like Christmas morning! It’s my first game in five years, and my training continues. I rebalance myself on my bike and it’s as if I had never stopped riding. But above all, I try to have as much fun as possible.

BLADE: And how was working with the young director Jade King Carroll?

AYRES-BROWN: Tremendous! The play deals with difficult times, harmful language and ideas. Jade created a space in our rehearsal room where people could have fun while engaging with it. Dealing with story concepts takes the seriousness it takes, but it also takes humor and levity, and Jade made that possible.

BLADE: Do you have any thoughts on “Red Velvet” being time-locked?

AYRES-BORWN: No, I think this piece is a surprisingly contemporary retelling of a lost history that feels extremely resonant as it relates to identity politics and the push for representation. I hope the audience sees a period but appreciates the current dynamics, discussions and language. It’s also surprisingly human and very entertaining. For me, it’s a very funny show. Anyone interested in laughing at the stupidity of posh Brits might agree.