Red Velvet: the legacy of Ira Aldridge lives on at Crow’s Theatre

Of all the openings coming our way this very busy but not yet post-pandemic theatre season in Toronto, one play in particular has caught my attention. The Canadian premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet at Crow’s Theatre next month is a subject that is close to my heart. It is a bio-play about the African American Shakespearean actor, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), and a number of years ago I took my own run at this remarkable story in my play, African Roscius (Being the Life and Times of Ira Aldridge), produced by Black Theatre Canada at the Alumnae Theatre in Toronto during the summer of 1987. 

In an interview with Jon Kaplan, writing for Now newspaper in advance of the play’s opening, he asked me why there is such a dearth of Black actors within our classical repertory companies (which at the time included the then named Stratford Shakespearean Festival). My answer was short and to the point: “Black Shakespearean actors have always been present, whether or not they’ve been seen on the major stages of the world. In Canada, we live in a multiracial society, and theatre should reflect that fact.”

Although African Roscius predated Lolita Chakrabarti’s fine play by 35 years, I was certainly not the first playwright hoping to give Aldridge an encore.

In his comprehensive four volume study of Ira Aldridge (University of Rochester Press), Bernth Lindfors cites the actor and playwright, Ossie Davis, as having written the first American treatment of Aldridge’s life and times entitled, Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge, Sir in 1963. Six years later came Long Way From Home by Henry Kemp-Blair that dealt mostly with the mature Aldridge as he toured the European continent. The award winning actor, director and writer (as well as my fellow alumnus from the New Shakespeare Company of San Francisco), Ted Lange, wrote and produced a rock musical about Aldridge that was produced at the Inner City Cultural Centre in Los Angeles in 1981 entitled, Born a Unicorn. Following this, David Pownall’s Black Star (the first attempt by a British dramatist) and my own African Roscius (with Michael Danso in the title role) in 1987. Lonnie Elder III’s monodrama, Splendid Mummer (featuring Charles Dutton as Aldridge) opened in New York in 1988 and toured Birmingham, London and Amsterdam in 1991. In between were various university productions that grew out of academic research projects and PhD dissertations that have made for a lively trove of dramaturgical material for those interested in the long history of Black Shakespeareans.

Of my own script, Lindors noted that, “Robin Breon’s version of the Aldridge story stuck more closely to the details presented in the Marshal and Stock biography.” This was definitely true and I was pleased to see in the acknowledgements in the published script version of her play (Bloomsbury, 2012) that Lolita Chakrabarti concurs: “I would like to thank Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock for their excellent biography, Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian published in 1958 (Southern Illinois University Press) which has been my bible… .” Amen to that.

This remarkable biography by Marshall (1906-1991) and Stock (1902-1980) not only captures the life and times of the actor, but also unearths startling secondary details that might be described as the “death by a thousand cuts” that Black people have suffered with regard to the erasure of their stories from the official record over hundreds of years. 

One example that comes immediately to mind from the book concerns a graduate student named W. Napoleon Rivers. Rivers was working on his doctoral thesis at Cornell University in Romance Languages researching the eminent French poet, writer and drama critic, Théophile Gautier, when he came across a review of Aldridge by Gautier datelined, St. Petersburg, 1858.

Aldridge was now at the height of his fame across the Continent, and Gautier new exactly what he was seeing after observing the actor playing Othello. Writing in La Presse he raved: “Sa première entrée fut magnifique, il était Othello lui-même tel que imaginé par Shakespeare… Sa performance a suscité des applaudissements sans fin.” After seeing him play Macbeth, Shylock and Lear in white-face makeup, Gautier asked matter-of-factly if a white actor can use blackface, why shouldn’t the opposite be true: “ne s’infarinerait-il pas de céruse pour jouer un rôle blanc?” 

Having found the quote in French, Rivers immediately set to work on the extant English translations of Gautier’s work thinking that this reference would make an excellent citation for his research. Searching for the quote in English led to an exhaustive page-for-page, line-by-line comparison between the original French complete works of Gautier to the authoritative 24-volume English translation by Professor F.A. deSumichrast of the French Department at Harvard University. To his great surprise, Rivers found that this reference to Ira Aldridge performing at a theatre in St. Petersburg had been omitted in its entirety!

Says Rivers: “deSumichrast translates beautifully enough up to this passage on Aldridge, makes an abrupt halt, then takes a leap and continues his translation one paragraph beyond!” Similar translations by academics from other sources compound the sins of omission. A laudatory review, complimenting Ira Aldridge in the original French by one of the great critics of the era is just somehow lost in translation. 

Red Velvet begins on the last day of Ira Aldridge’s life, at a theatre in Lodz, Poland, preparing to play Othello, and flashes back to the year 1833 coming up on his opening at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in the same role in a production that was originally to star Edmund Kean. Kean had been taken gravely ill and was unable to perform. 

The central conceit of the play involves the young Aldridge (he was 26 at the time) and his interactions with Kean’s company which includes his son, Charles, who considers himself the natural heir to his father’s theatrical legacy and Ellen Tree, a popular actor of the day who was at the time engaged to Charles.

For an article in American Theatre magazine prior to the American premiere of Red Velvet in 2014 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn (with the entire British company intact), I spoke with Adrian Lester, the British actor who played Aldridge in the original Tricycle Theatre production two years previously in London (the Canadian actor Dion Johnstone, a former Stratford Festival regular, also played Aldridge in a production of Red Velvet at Chicago Shakespeare in 2017).

Lester understood the uphill climb that an actor faces trying to play the role of another actor and, in this case not just any actor but one of the most acclaimed actors of his time.

“When you get into the question of style with regard to classical acting in the 19th century, it gets complicated,” he said. “In the very critical time period in which the play takes place—as Aldridge is about to do Othello at Covent Garden in 1833—he is developing his own unique approach to acting Shakespeare, and he is critical of some of the more formalized, declamatory acting styles of the period, as exemplified by actors like Charles Kemble, who would seem quite stilted—almost comical—if we could see them today. We wanted to open up this discussion that Aldridge was so passionate about. But as a result, the actual amount of Aldridge acting Shakespeare as it might have been acted in the 19th century is very limited.”

Indeed, in the entire play there are only about 60 lines, give or take, from Shakespeare and these, only from Othello, are shared between Aldridge as Othello and Ellen Tree as Desdemona. Most of the plot involves wrangling over whose who in the company, while Pierre Laporte, the then manager of  Covent Garden, frets over the decision to cast a man of African descent in the role of an African.

In his Guardian review Michael Billington, who awarded Red Velvet 4 (out of 5) stars, stated that, “Lolita Chakrabarti’s text has some minor flaws, but opens up a fascinating subject and gets a major performance from Adrian Lester that whets the appetite for his Othello at the National next year.”

Here I find myself in great sympathy with the challenges that Chakrabarti faced as a playwright. 35 years on, I am still ambivalent in my feelings that I could have done better by Ira Aldridge. His is a big story and difficult to capture with the minimal resources that we have in the theatre. Perhaps film would be a better medium. Herbert Marshall wrote a documentary screenplay that he had hoped Paul Robeson would narrate but it never came to fruition. For that matter, neither have any feature film treatments of Robeson’s extraordinary life as a performing artist ever seen the light of day as cinema.

In fact, Paul Robeson claims a direct connection with Aldridge through his daugther, Amanda, with whom Robeson studied voice while he was performing in Show Boat and preparing to play Othello in London. Robeson’s Othello (with Uta Hagen in the role of Desdemona) opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre in 1943 where it played for a record breaking 296 performances.

Several years ago, with the aid of my writing partner Andrew Moodie, we decided to have another go at telling Ira Aldridge’s story from a completely different point of view. Just after the brouhaha at Covent Garden in the spring of 1833, Aldridge and his wife Margaret decided to take their show on the road. Aldridge had been performing in the UK since he arrived on British soil almost 10 years previously, at the age of 17. He had built up a sizable repertory of roles that included Shakespeare’s tragedies (notably Othello, Merchant of Venice and Macbeth) but also seriously themed melodramas of the day along with comic popular entertainments. 

Now, without a company, and feeling that London had simply grown too racist and inhospitable, he decided to go it alone with a solo lecture/performance tour entitled, In Defense of the Drama, that would get him out of the city and into the provinces where he could earn a living and get back on his feet. Bernth Lindfors describes his project this way: “This was minimalist theatre, requiring little fuss or expense. It could be staged anywhere, took hardly any time to set up… and was eminently portable.” Aldridge eventually built up a company of players but he did not return to London for seven years.

Later in his life, during the period he toured the Continent and Russia, so eloquently recorded by Gautier in his St. Petersburg dispatches, Aldridge befriended the revolutionary Ukrainian poet and artist, Taras Shevchenko, who had just been released from one of the Tsar’s Siberian prisons. Their mutual admiration and shared experiences of oppression jump out like  daily newspaper headlines for a contemporary audience.

Without giving away more details, let me leave you with our hopes that this solo show, entitled as Aldridge had it, In Defense of the Drama, will be coming to a theatre near you sometime next year. With a running time of between 60-70 minutes, and falling chronologically as it does after the events captured in Red Velvet, it would make an ideal companion piece for any theatre who might want to stage an “Ira Aldridge Festival” dedicated to this worthy thespian.

And by the way, we are not the only ones who just can’t leave this story alone. The award winning actor and writer Chukwudi Iwuji, is currently workshopping his own new version of the story entitled simply, “Ira.” 

What is it about the life and times of Ira Aldridge that is so compelling over 150 years after his death? Michael Billington reminds us in his review that, “The issues Red Velvet raises have never entirely gone away.” Today, a decade on from when the now retired chief drama critic for the Guardian wrote those words, with bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, racism and antisemitism seemingly growing bolder everywhere – that seems like quite an understatement.

Black Shakespeareans in Canada know this very well.

As a result of the Black Lives Matter movement (and ancillary groups like “We See You White American Theatre”) combined with criticism internally from Black, South Asian and Indigenous members at the Stratford Festival, the SF was moved to commission a report two years ago that began the process of reconciling this PWI’s (predominantly white institution) past history of neglect and discrimination with regard to the hiring and promotion of racialized minorities within the company. 

Entitled, “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Update on Anti-Racism Initiatives”,  this 45 page document was published in July 2021. The overall content of the report is comprehensive and touches upon all areas – front and back of house – at the Stratford Festival. Although the lengthy list of recommendations contained therein are mostly aspirational at this point, it is a good benchmark as the SF moves forward in an effort to create a more inclusive mandate.

Also following from recommendations contained in the EDI task force report, is the establishment of a new management position. Last year the SF search committee advertised widely for a new job position titled, “Director, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” The incumbent would report to the Director of Human Resources. The ad, which contained a lengthy job description, appeared in widely circulated digital media such as ArtsJournal and other outlets. Daviorr Snipes, formerly Director Equity, Diversity and Engagement at Alliance Theatre in Atlanta was the successfull candidate. If the job description is a fair indication of the duties and resposibilties of the position, it looks as though he will have his work cut out for him.

How will all of these good recommendations translate into reality for actors from racialized communities who are just entering the company or are mid-career? Twenty seasons forward from today will we see that artistic directors have ensured folks like Yanna McIntosh, Cara Ricketts, Cherrisa Richards, Amaka Umeh and Anthony Santiago received the same support and employment opportunities over the long term as did Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna, Martha Henry and William Hutt during their many seasons at Stratford? 

After graduating from the University of Windsor, Antoni Cimolino began his career at the Stratford Festival in 1988. His contract was recently renewed by the SF board of directors until 2026. If a woman or a person of color is chosen to succeed him as artistic director, what kind of salary and job security will the board offer she/he/them? Only time will tell.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s play opens the door to all of the questions framed above. Her entry point was a difficult time in the life of a young Black actor making his way on the London stage. Herbert Marshall and Mildred Stock put it this way: “Those two days, 10th and 12th April 1833, will for ever be red letter days in the history of world theatre and human progress, for in those days, a lone Negro from an enslaved people challenged the great white actors in the very heart of their Empire, in their own Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in one of the greatest roles conceived by Shakespeare.”

Red Velvet will play at Crow’s Theatre in Toronto November 22 through December 18. For tickets go to

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