In Red Velvet, a new play by Lolita Chakrabarti now at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse, Adrian Lester plays Ira Aldridge, a famed African-American actor who made history playing Othello at the London Covent Garden in 1833. Aldridge, who'd left New York as a teenager, was in his late 20s when he stepped in for the ailing Edmund Kean, the reigning English Shakespearean thespian of the day. He went on to build an illustrious career in Europe, touring with the classics until his death in 1867.
Since his affecting performance in the early 1990s as the cross-dressing Rosalind in the all-male Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, Lester has moved easily between Sondheim musicals, Shakespeare, a long-running British television series (Hustle), and playing the idealistic campaign manager in Mike Nichols's Primary Colors. The English actor, who's married to playwright Chakrabarti, talked to us about bringing Aldridge's story, their labor of love, to the stage.
How did Red Velvet come about?
I was asked to do a reading at the Garrick Club about Ira's experiences in London and in the provinces. I had never heard of the guy before. So after I finished the reading I took those six sheets of paper about him back home and I asked my wife Lolita if she'd heard of him. She said no. She read the pages and said, “I think there's a story here.” She started doing some research and she realized that Ira's connection to European history was quite strong. A lot of the significant moments in his life coincided with a lot that was happening in Europe—the people he influenced and the people he met. Lolita found it fascinating that the manager of the company at Covent Garden, which was a major theater in London, said he wanted Ira to step in and play the part. You can believe that from a manager who's from France, who's perhaps the son or the grandson of people who pushed through the Revolution—people who wanted change and fought for it. At that time, we know that the actresses Fanny Kemble and Ellen Tree played Romeo and Juliet opposite each other, and we know that the bill to abolish slavery on all British soil was also going through. So it was quite a turbulent period.
Lolita began collecting this research all together thinking she'd write a film. She told Indhu Rubasingham, who was directing her in a play, about this story and Indhu said, “Write it as a play, it's much quicker, I'd love to direct it.” From that point, Lolita was writing draft after draft and she was handing it to me and to Indhu, and we were feeding notes back until we got to the point that it was ready.