No two productions of a play are ever quite the same—that’s one of the things that makes theatre a living art. Variations in direction, performance and design can give an old play a facelift, but now and then, there are reinterpretations so extreme that they give a play a whole new relevance and meaning. That was the case last fall for both of the major productions undertaken by Pomona’s Theatre Department—the musical Pippin and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Victorian play within a play, Red Velvet.
Red Velvet is the true story of the American black actor Ira Aldridge who came to London in the 1800s and was cast to play the great Shakespearean role of Othello at a time when there were public riots in the streets over the abolition of slavery. Chakrabarti chose to portray Aldridge as a tragic figure in his own right, driven mad by rejection as the play comes to a close.
But director Kenshaka Ali and his students thought the playwright had it all wrong. So they turned the play on its head—subverting the text to transform the main character, in Ali’s words, “from one who was victimized and who died a maddened or demented, enraged old man to one who indeed was a victor instead.”
In the case of Pippin, which debuted on Broadway in the 1970s, the work of Stephen Schwartz, Roger O. Hirson and choreographer Bob Fosse, the transformation was mostly visual and musical, using hip-hop and the Japanese animation style known as anime to give the play a more contemporary look and sound—and, according to guest director Tim Dang, one that is far more familiar to the students of Generation Z.
“I don’t even know if hip-hop and anime have ever been integrated,” says Dang. “There might be a couple of anime stories that do incorporate a hip-hop kind of culture. But it’s a very interesting mix because anime originally started in Japan and hip-hop originated in Brooklyn. We’re in this together and creating something that I think is very unique for Pomona College.”