March 16th, 2014

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Red Velvet: The forgotten story of Ira Aldridge


This feature was first published on Operation Black Vote here:

My Red Velvet feature for Vada Magazine was a theatre review. I have written a companion piece for Operation Black Vote which focuses on the Black history aspect of the play and on the themes of race and racism in Victorian London and Britain, which are important themes in the play.

Cut and pasted from the Operation Black Vote website:

Red Velvet: The forgotten story of Ira Aldridge

Red Velvet uncovers the true, but forgotten story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor, who played Othello on the London stage in 1833. Written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starring Adrian Lester as Ira Aldridge, the play examines and analyses the hot topics of race and racism in Victorian Britain by exploring aspects of Ira Aldridge's life story.

In 1833, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. Charles Kean, his son, who had been playing Iago opposite his father, expected to take over the title role. However, the French theatre manager, Pierre Laporte, took a risk and cast his friend Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor, as Othello.

Red Velvet, depicts the attitudes, the prejudices and the mindset of Victorian London and Britain. Although the Slave Trade and Slavery had been formally abolished across the British Empire, Black people were a long way away from equal rights and White people still perceived them to be inferior.

This is clearly conveyed in the play, when Aldridge is first introduced to the company, many of the actors are visibly shocked and shaken by the thought of an African-American playing Othello. They fear their production will be seen as a “freak show” or a “curiosity” and that it will not be taken seriously.

The theatre reviews of Aldridge’s performance are truly shocking to a modern-day audience, but are very revealing of the commonplace bigotry, prejudice and racism prevalent in Victorian London and Britain, the beating heart of the British Empire.

Laporte had warned Aldridge to tread carefully to start with, to allow the audience time to acclimatize and adjust. But Aldridge had played hard and fast from the beginning, giving full expression to the anger and passion of the Moor. The charged and passionate scenes, between a Black man and a White woman, proved too much for Victorian sensibilities.

Aldridge only played Othello on the London stage for a couple of performances before the Board of the Theatre decided to dispense with his services. The Board preferred to close the theatre for a few days (“going dark”), rather than let Aldridge continue to perform.

The “experiment” of having a Black actor play Othello on the London stage in Victorian Britain came to an abrupt end and was very short-lived. Aldridge subsequently went into “exile”, touring around Europe’s regional and fringe theatre, but never returning to the London stage.

Red Velvet captures this forgotten piece of personal and theatre history, and brings Ira Aldridge’s story to a mainstream audience in such an absorbing way.

Its focus on a key moment in Aldridge’s theatrical career, looking at how and why Aldridge came to play Othello on the London stage in 1833 and how the company, the audience and the critics respond to Aldridge and his performance is the crux of the play. It is an important part of Black history and a powerful story that deserves to be told.

Red Velvet is playing at the Tricycle Theatre in London until 15th March before transferring to Broadway, New York.

Follow the link below to the Tricycle Theatre website for all the details about Red Velvet: