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Shakespeare & Beyond

Q&A: Lolita Chakrabarti - The 'Red Velvet' playwright on 19th-century Black actor Ira Aldridge

Amari Cheatom as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet
Amari Cheatom as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet
Amari Cheatom as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet

Amari Cheatom as Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2022.

Ira Aldridge is someone who stands out in 19th-century theater history: A Black actor who left the United States in 1824 to find fame and success in Britain and Europe. Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet dramatizes a pivotal moment in Aldridge’s career, when he takes over for Edmund Kean in the high-profile role of Othello at Covent Garden in London in 1833.

Lolita Chakrabarti

Lolita Chakrabarti

With Red Velvet onstage at Shakespeare Theatre Company this summer (see photo above), we took the opportunity to ask Chakrabarti a few questions about Ira Aldridge.

⇒ Related blog post: Ira Aldridge takes the stage

What were the opportunities for a Black classical actor in this time period, and how did that differ by country? Specifically, how did slavery in the United States and in the British colonies impact Ira Aldridge’s life and career?

There were no opportunities in 1824 in the US or Britain. The idea of a “Black classical actor” was unimaginable as a career choice. The African Grove Theatre run by William Brown in New York was the first of its kind and gave its company of Black actors the opportunity to play Shakespeare. It was here that James Hewlett made his mark and led the company but after it closed he was unable to sustain an acting career In the US and died in poverty.

In Britain Charles Matthews, a white comedic actor, was famous for his stock English and American characters. One of his most popular stock characters was a parody of a Black Shakespearean actor based on James Hewlett or Ira Aldridge. The portrayal was neither respectful nor accurate. This character was a figure of fun, portrayed as a joke, mispronouncing Shakespearean lines in a ridiculously distorted African American Vernacular English. This mocking version of an actor followed Aldridge in Victorian Britain and was something he had to work against.

A lot of theatre In Britain centered around performers of colour were shows of curiosity rather than drama. One example is the Venus Hottentots. They were African women who were displayed naked for white patrons to look at. This was also the time the character of Jim Crow was established by the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice. Wikipedia says ‘His act drew on aspects of African American culture and popularized them with a national, and later international, audience’ but as far as I can tell he created an offensive character based on his own prejudice and racism.

Aldridge was unable to work in the US until the abolition of slavery. There was no career path for him to follow. So when he left in 1824 he could only plan his return after the civil war ended slavery in 1865. He immediately instigated a tour starting at the New York Academy of Music in 1867 but he died that August and was never to return.

The most significant moment of Ira Aldridge’s career, and the dramatic focus of Red Velvet, is when he takes over for Edmund Kean playing the role of Othello at Covent Garden. What would the audience have been expecting, and what was their reaction?

I would argue that this moment in Ira’s career may not have been the most significant but that in my play I chose it to be his defining moment, equating it with my own career as an actress and the importance of a big break in the theatre. There were no photographs in magazines or newspapers, this was a print led environment, so images of Ira were not swamping the market. Perhaps some people didn’t know he was Black.

There were racist pieces in the press lambasting him for daring to play the Theatre Royal. When you read them now they are eye watering in their detail and spite. A magazine called Figaro particularly targeted Aldridge and he responded by anonymously posting a rebuttal at The Garrick Club. It was the slow burn equivalent of what we would now recognise as bullying through social media. So tensions were high. But the audience at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden responded well to his performance. Although this was a time of an influenza pandemic so the theatre was struggling to encourage audiences to attend (sound familiar?)

Ira Aldridge eventually left England and toured Europe. How was he received there? Did his career path track with what was typical for theatrical stars of the day, or did it diverge in substantial ways?

In 1852 Aldridge finally went to Europe as options in Britain were limited. He began in France with a British company but that proved too expensive and difficult. So soon after he toured alone and played with local actors where they would speak in their language and he in English. The response was amazing. He quickly gathered the support of nobles, major literary and artistic figures and royalty. He was also extremely popular with working people – a living example of breaking out of the box society had put him in. They admired and understood his journey as their own. He was knighted and awarded. He moved from the Maly Theatre in Russia to the Bolshoi which he sold out several nights running and he was the highest paid actor ever to play in Russia at the time.

He also took his work to areas of Europe that had never experienced Shakespeare. He toured relentlessly in France, Prussia, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Hungary to name just a few. I do not know of other theatre stars of the day but feel that Aldridge finally received the opportunities and adoration owed to him for his work and didn’t look back.

After writing the play, did you learn any new information that made you think differently about some aspect of Ira Aldridge’s story?

I learned a lot more about Aldridge’s life from Bernth Lindfors’ excellent and exhaustive four volumes of biography. The detail is amazing and they were published soon after my play was first on. But the facts I have in the play remain the same.

One thing that did please me was that I called the play Red Velvet based on my first visits to theatre in London’s West End when I was a 15 years old schoolgirl from Birmingham. I remember that trip so vividly, I can taste the thrill of it now. I was completely seduced by the faded glamour of the Victorian theatres, the ghosts within, and the evocative texture of the red velvet seats and curtains. But in Bernth’s last book I read that at Aldridge’s state funeral in Łódź in Poland in 1867 a wreath was carried following his coffin on a red velvet cushion. It was a very satisfying moment – I got it right for both of us!