It’s worth arriving early to a performance of Tricycle Theatre’s Red Velvet at St. Ann’s Warehouse to read the timeline compiled by author Lolita Chakrabarti, even though doing so creates a certain disconnect when watching the play a few moments later. Chakrabarti’s richly detailed document relates the significant life events and historical context of Red Velvet’s subject: Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello on the London stage, in 1833, and who went on to a long and acclaimed international career.
In contrast with his many accomplishments and honors, however, Chakrabarti’s play (which won Britain’s Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards) tells a much more tragic story, of racism and failure, both of Europe’s abolitionist-revolutionary movements of the day and of artistic idealism. How the real and the fictional intersect in the playwright’s reading of these underpins this stimulating production that stars one of the great Shakespeare actors of his own time and generation in Britain, Adrian Lester.
As the play’s title subtly suggests, Aldridge had the stage in his blood, but the United States in which he was born in 1807 – 62 years before the Thirteenth Amendment would abolish slavery – had few opportunities for African-Americans. Aldridge’s first stage was opened with some difficulty by a West Indian ship steward in Mercer Street, in New York City. According to Chakrabarti’s timeline, Brown’s Theater, also known as the “African Theater” opened in 1821 with a performance of Richard III by an all black cast. A riot and a fire closed it shortly thereafter. Not surprisingly, Aldridge was lured a few years later to Britain, where the Anti-Slavery Society had been founded and the rights of people of color were gaining ground.
Red Velvet takes up Aldridge’s story at the end of his life, physically ruined by age and the discomforts of thirty years on the road, the relevant details of which are filled in through the device of a Q&A with a young Polish journalist. Aldridge is by now a star from Dublin to Cracow, who once had the gait of a wrestler and the roar of a lion, but he is flustered by the pretty reporter’s main question: why has he never returned to play London, the greatest city in the world for theater? A flashback ensues to Aldridge’s brilliant, but disparaged London début as Othello, and it is here that Chakrabarti’s engaging tale really begins.
Engaging and engaged: what follows is a meta-meditation on theater itself, brightly contrasting theater of entertainment in the play’s first half, and theater of ideas in its dramatic climax. It was Aldridge’s natural presence on stage that made him famous, a fact that Chakrabarti exploits to good measure to familiarize contemporary audiences with the acting styles that prevailed in the 19th century. As Lester’s Aldridge goes through his first paces with the other actors of the Royal Covent Garden Theatre, the rest of director Indhu Rubasingham’s cast (led by the luminescent Charlotte Lucas as Covent Garden’s leading lady) demonstrates with great comic aplomb the exaggerated gestures and elocution of the Georgian style that transfixed theater audiences 200 years ago. Tom Piper’s set, which lines the stage with dressing room tables and mirrors, nails down the theater metaphor.
But Red Velvet’s primary concern is with the political context of the 18th century, a tumultuous time when, over the course of a few years in the early part of the century, France abolished then restored slavery in its colonies, the first black revolution took place as Haiti won its independence and ended slavery there, Britain and the US abolished the slave trade but upheld the institution of slavery, and the world was transfixed by the question of the ethics and economics of the owning of human beings by a ruling class. In the play, this background is briefly alluded to in name but vividly brought to life by the reactions of some of Covent Garden’s actors to Aldridge’s starring role amongst them. As Charles Kean, the son of Britain’s leading Shakespeare actor of the age, Oliver Ryan manages to communicate with one look the loathing, disgust and fear that color could evoke when slavery was still a “natural” facet of society.
This context becomes of vital important to Aldridge in the play’s second half when Chakrabarti has Aldridge and Covent Garden’s director, the once revolutionary minded Frenchman Pierre Laporte (played by Eugene O’Hare with a thick Gallic accent that becomes tiresome by show’s end) engage in a straight-up debate on the extent to which ideals of equality and artistic integrity might bear up under economic and social pressure to conform to a restrictive view of race and otherness. Both men fight for their reputations and careers but, in Aldridge’s case, the stakes are much higher because he is also, in a larger sense, fighting for his whole identity and his life.
The Tricycle Theatre’s production masters all these registers, tensions and arguments with admirable skill and intelligence. Rubasingham’s direction and Imogen Knight’s choreography create a slowly turning ballet of figures caught up by centrifugal forces beyond their control. As the larger-than-life Aldridge (and as Aldridge playing Othello), Lester is mesmerizing, lending vitality and wisdom, optimism and determination to our new understanding of this path-breaking actor.
One question remained unanswered for me, however, until the final scene of the production: if, as Chakrabarti tells his story, Aldridge was thrown out of Covent Garden after one performance on the sole basis of his race, how did he become the revered actor in the rest of Europe that the timeline describes? Without giving away the ending, it’s safe to say that Chakrabarti either researched or imagined an obvious (with hindsight) answer, one that ends Red Velvet on a devastating note. Still, as Aldridge prepares to play Lear one last time in Poland before his death, the play argues for the power of art and artistry to transform reality. The theater made a man, an actor and a world citizen of the son of slaves. No laws or prejudice could ever change that.