When I was a child, in the early to mid-sixties, my father sold a set of encyclopedias that focused on black history called the Negro Heritage Library. It recognized people of color who were notable during challenging times. One such person was Ira Aldridge, an American-born black actor born in 1807 who became one of the most recognized and highly paid performers of his day. (I’m not sure if he was included in that set of books, as I was too young to remember, but he certainly should have been)
The West Coast Premiere of the play “Red Velvet”, depicts Aldridge’s life and struggles as he prepares to take over the role of “Othello” at the Royal Convent Garden Theatre in London.
Aldridge was born in New York to free parents. He was able to attend the African Free School where he received an education in English grammar, writing, math, geography, and astronomy. In his teens, he worked as an actor at the African Grove Theatre. It was the first African-American theater in America. The theater was set afire by bigots and he decided to immigrate to Liverpool to work as a fellow actor’s valet. He spent years in the U.K and played the title roles in Shakespeare’s “Othello, “Macbeth” and “Richard III” to enthusiastic audiences. The London press was not as tolerant. This all came about before the Civil War when slavery was rampant in many parts of the world.
“Red Velvet” was written by Lolita Chakrabarti and the Los Angeles production is directed by Benjamin Pohlmeier. Ten actors, led by Paul Outlaw, as Aldridge, tell the poignant and humorous story of the black actor as he prepares to take over the role of “Othello,” at the Royal Convent Garden Theater in London in the year 1833. After his performance, the press is appalled that a black performer is playing the part of the Moor and he is forced by the Board of Directors to leave. One paper stated, “It would be the same as a drunk playing the role of Falstaff.”
Still, Aldridge managed to achieve monumental success in Europe particularly in Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Prussia, Serbia, and Imperial Russia playing to packed houses. The play ends with the actor in white clown makeup and long white wig as he is about to go on stage as Lear in Lodz, Poland. He died there in 1867 at the age of 60 from pneumonia.
Ira Aldridge was married to a white British woman, Margaret Gill, for 40 years until her death and then married a Swedish woman. Two of his several children went on to become opera stars.
He received honors from European heads of state including King Frederick William III and the Czar of Russia and is the only black actor, out of 33 actors, to be honored with a chair and plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Outlaw plays his role with ferocity and emotional pathos. He sees himself as a consummate actor and refuses to ease into his character to allow the audience to accept him, despite the pleas of Colin Campbell, who humorously plays Pierre, the accepting, yet pressured manager of the Theatre Royal at Convent Garden. Nicola Bertram deftly portrays Ellen Tree, a renowned actress of her time, who was engaged to Charles Kean, a junior member of the Convent Garden Company and son of the actor Aldridge replaced when he became ill. Ben Warner takes on the role of Charles and is convincingly appalled that his fiancé has been “manhandled” by Aldridge during a violent scene in the play.
All of the actors in The Junction Theatre production of “Red Velvet” portray their roles skillfully with a combination of the style of the era and emotional truth. The play runs 2 hours but speeds by quickly because the story is fascinating.
Sadly, despite Aldridge’s achievements and recognition, he was quickly forgotten after his death and is buried in Lodz, Poland.
The West Coast Premiere of “Red Velvet” runs from March 26 – April 30, 2016. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm. Sundays at 5:00 pm.
“Red Velvet” is not only worth seeing but the story of this remarkable black actor, who was able to achieve fame during an impossible time, is someone everyone should know about.