Bright Swords has three essential elements that make it one of the most polished, intelligent, and satisfying productions at Fringe: an elegant performance by Ryan Vincent Anderson, a beautifully written, smart, funny, human script by playwright Rick Creese, and stylish, impeccably focused direction by director Jeffrey Wienckowski.
Alone on stage, Anderson takes the audience through the challenges and triumphs of one of the most important but little-known early actors of the theatre. Ira Aldridge was the first African American to play Othello on a London stage at a time when actors of color were often nothing more than figures to be laughed at. His determination to portray his characters as men rather than stereotypes was revolutionary in the 19th century. He challenged prejudices by remaining true to his artistic heart, declaring he was the best case for abolition and wouldn’t have it any other way.
The role is a natural fit for Anderson, who easily captures Aldridge’s dignity, eagerness, and humor. His narration is warmly conversational, due in part to Creese’s ability to find the essence of the man and write honestly in his voice. Anderson personifies a revolving cast of characters who flowed through Aldridge’s life, from James Hewlett, whom he’d met at a young age and then later worked with at the African Theatre, to the famous Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean, known as much for his vulgarity as his brilliance, to the great British actor, James Wallack, who first introduced him to Othello and encouraged him to “have a go at British theatre.”
There are scenes with his father, a Puritanical preacher, his enchanting first meeting and subsequent marriage to a British white woman named Margaret Gill, and a rather harrowing memory of his seafaring days as a teenager wherein he narrowly missed being sold into slavery, as well as many others.
These are deep characters deeply considered and Anderson’s transitions between them are seamless and specific, regardless of whether the passage in question lasts several minutes or only a few brief moments.
It is a production that has great educational value both historically and also as an example of how to create 60 minutes of compelling theatre that holds an audience’s attention from beginning to end. It should tour, especially since the discussions it would prompt among high school and college students regarding race relations, the pursuit of artistic development, and following a dream would prove inherently beneficial.
Bright Swords is a hidden jewel; the kind one hopes to find among the many works in progress and other tossed-together fringe shows, and what a delight. I wholeheartedly recommend you see it.
Shakespeare in LA
June 13 – 27, 2015
Complex Theatres (East Theatre)
6468 Santa Monica Blvd.