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.
Was the role written specifically for you?
Lolita wrote what was best for the play. She always had in mind that I would play it, but we always knew that it might not happen. If a theater had said, “Yes, we want to do it now,” and I was signed up to a TV show or another job then, of course, I wouldn’t be able to do it. But a lot of the stuff that Ira is required to do on stage are things that Lolita knew I could do. It’s a fantastic part.
So there were no issues working on a play written by your wife?
It’s a strange thing, in a close relationship like that. We did think at one point that, well, you know, this might not work, we might not get on. But it’s been nothing but a plus actually. What became apparent in the series of rejections that Lolita had to face was that we felt that we were the only ones who thought that this was a good idea and that it would make a really good play.
You mention the rejections. I understand it took some 15 years from when she had the original idea to write the play to when it was eventually produced.
When the three of us—Lolita, Indhu, and I—were working on it, we were out on a limb. Nobody else was there to back us up. We did workshops, we had readings. Some people were very nice, but in the end they said no. Other people just gave us really silly notes. When people aren’t sure of a story in film or in the theater, they ask you to put elements in that they understand, or which they know have worked before. So they ask you to push up the love story, or some character or another. They always revert to the cornerstone that balances their insecurity. It might be, “Oh, the last thing I saw about an actor had a great piece of mime in it; let’s put some mime in. That will work!” But Lolita stuck to her guns, with Indhu and myself feeding in, so if you hate it, it’s our fault. When Indhu got the artistic directorship of the Tricycle, she said, “I know what I’m going to program as my first play,” although it was nerve-wracking for her doing a new play by a new writer with her friends.
What did you find most interesting in this story about a largely forgotten actor from a past century?
Where to start? Beyond the obvious references to color and being from a different culture and of a different place, beyond the references of slavery continuing in America and him being in Britain—what you have is an individual who has a belief in himself, and fights for the room to allow him to pursue his dream. The piece is also about friendship, about commitment. It’s about discipline and about pushing yourself so hard it that sometimes it’s hard to see your own limitations.
How did you set about recreating a 19th-century acting style?
It wasn’t an intellectual study of how it felt and what it must have looked like. For me it’s only pertinent to make sure you enhance the present performance—to look back and see what things may have helped the audience connect to the play in order to make your own interpretation have a greater connection to a modern audience. Approaching the 19th-century style—it’s all about movement. It’s about presenting each emotion and changes of thought, using the voice to a more heightened degree. And in the showing is where the style comes from, because the stage was poorly lit and there were no microphones. I think you have to have the physical strength and precision of a ballet dancer with the vocal power of an opera singer.
You received much acclaim for performing in two Sondheim musicals in London in the early 1990s: the young romantic lead in Sweeney Todd and the lead in Company, for which you received the Olivier Award. Wasn’t it considered groundbreaking at the time in London for an actor of color to play those roles?
Well, yeah, people told me, but it has no bearing on the playing of a part. The song doesn’t feel different to me. If the audiences have trouble accepting the characterization because they are too caught up with the external nature of the person telling the story—that’s their thing. To me, you just tell the story. It doesn’t mean anything different to me playing Anthony [in Sweeney Todd], or Bobby [in Company], or playing Rosalind [in As You Like It] or Henry V. You play the character. If the story is culturally specific to your skin color, or your sex or your height, whatever, then those things come into play and they are part of the performance, but otherwise you just play the part.
But it does come up in the context of how people saw Aldridge’s Othello as a first for a black actor…
Yes, it’s certainly a good talking point to bring up. On that point, I do think that when people were saying to me, “Oh you were first black actor in a Sondheim musical or the first person to do something else,” then you think of the story of Ira Aldridge. I know that people would have said Paul Robeson was the first black man to ever play Othello in a major theater in London. There’s this kind of collective amnesia that happens every so often. We reset the clock and say, “Okay let’s draw a line at this point.” You say, “No woman before has ever led a company that, you know, has had this much money in it…ever!” Or you say, “No woman of color has ever been worth this much.” It’s said as a compliment normally, and it’s meant to say to the person, “Gosh, haven’t you done well, even though you’re a woman, or even though you’re black.” But actually it’s a pat on the back for the society that the person is a member of. It tells them, “Look at this everyone. Aren’t we wonderful?” Then you think, especially as in Ira’s case, that it’s happened before. Robeson wasn’t the first, James Earl Jones wasn’t the first. When you remember that, you see that society is spinning on the same axis and is refusing to let go of some quite deeply held insecurities, some deeply held belief systems, and therefore congratulates itself, every, I don’t know, two generations, saying, “Look how far we have come.” But the problem still exists.