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THEATER | REVIEW

Short on Details

Docudrama about a 19th-century actor entertains but fails to illuminate his life.

April 09, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's fair to say that the bulk of docudramas on Los Angeles stages follows a simple formula: little-known actor plays well-known historical figure.

With "The African Tragedian" at the Actors Workout Studio, Robin Scott Peters has altered the formula. An actor and drama professor at Cal State San Bernardino, Peters chose Ira Frederick Aldridge as his subject.

Aldridge has been treated as little more than a footnote in the history of American theater. Born in Africa or America--it's not known which--in the early 1800s, Aldridge got a job at 14 as a dresser for British actor Henry Wallack. Enchanted with theater, he went on to become a Shakespearean actor on the stages of Europe.

With slavery still widespread in the American South, and police routinely raiding black theaters in the north, Aldridge chose exile. What was there for him in America, after all? Minstrel shows?

To demonstrate, Peters falls into a song and dance, cane and hat in hand, arms whirling. He wheels and turns, gathering speed and intensity until he burns with anger. The result is chilling.

Europe, however, is only a slight improvement. Aldridge's first reviews are a critique of his physicality--the size of his lips, the build of his body, the exact shade of his skin. Throughout his career, during which he will garner many awards, he struggles with how much of his success comes from his talent and how much from his novelty.

As an actor, Peters has a pleasant singing voice and strong presence, though lines escaped his grasp more than once. One wishes that, as a playwright, he'd given himself a little more to work with--for his sake and Aldridge's.

"The African Tragedian" stumbles over an awkward introduction, and the one-hour show is filled out with Shakespearean vignettes, sonnets and songs. In fact, the last half of the show resembles a collage more than any series of scenes. While this allows Peters to show off, it does little to illuminate Aldridge's life.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that Peters stuck too closely to Aldridge's known history, which is tragically limited. Such gaps--excusable in historical writing--weaken drama. The audience is left pondering what Aldridge's relationship was with a Russian woman, and also wondering why he left England.

At the end, Peters has Aldridge proclaim that theater "set me free." The words sound powerful, but the sentiment feels as though placed for the audience's satisfaction, rather than as a true reflection of Aldridge's struggles. He is a fascinating character, but it will take careful drama to make him more than just a footnote.

BE THERE

"The African Tragedian," Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays, 8 p.m. Indefinitely. $12.50. (818) 996-0505. Running time: one hour.

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