The Shakespeare Theatre Company is helping to draw attention to a little-known mid-19th century actor the organization trumpets as “one of theater’s greatest pioneers,” and more specifically “one of the first great classical actors of color.”
The man in question is Ira Aldridge, who is currently being brought to life on stage by Amari Cheatom (Judas and the Black Messiah) in Red Velvet by Olivier Award-winning playwright (Life of Pi) and actress Lolita Chakrabarti.
Originally staged a decade ago in London, Chakrabarti’s play sheds light on Aldridge’s life and career by embellishing the known historical facts and details with inspired moments and imagined scenarios.
The fictional flourishes serve to illuminate the potential and probable lived experiences of the man, an American by birth who sailed to England as a teenager and remained in Europe for the remainder of his life.
Red Velvet focuses its story around a particular milestone that occurred in 1833, when the 26-year-old Aldridge became the first Black actor to portray Othello.
At the time, his performance at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden was less an achievement than a setback, given that Aldridge was fired after only two performances, charged with being “too passionate” on stage.
But that was just the beginning of Aldridge’s career, which spanned nearly 50 years. Ultimately, he became “one of the most popular and widely seen interpreters of Shakespeare the world has ever seen,” as Shakespeare Theatre’s dramaturgs Soyica Colbert and Drew Lichtenberg write in the Red Velvet ASIDES program, further noting that, as an internationally touring performer, Aldridge also helped spark “shifting perspectives about who could play what roles, socially and politically.”
Cheatom as Aldridge leads a cast also featuring Samuel Adams, Jaye Ayres-Brown, David Bishins, Emily DeForest, Shannon Dorsey, Michael Glenn, and Tro Shaw, with direction by Jade King Carroll.
“I hope this production serves as a reminder that history is not linear,” says Simon Godwin, the company’s artistic director. “Many of the troubles we face today are the same trials as those of our ancestors. It is our duty to revisit our histories and break the cycles of injustice.”
Runs July 5 to 17 in The Klein Theatre at the Lansburgh, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets are $49 to $112. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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