Shows Worth Seeing:
By Lolita Chakrabarti
St. Ann's Warehouse
29 Jay St., Brooklyn
The history of Ira Aldridge is so amazing, outrageous and inspiring that it really should be taught to every American schoolchild. An African-American born in 1807, Aldridge was a world-class Shakespearean actor who realized as a teen that his talent could never flourish in the United States. He consequently moved to England and, after much hard work, made a stellar career for himself over four decades in major theaters from London and Dublin to Vienna, Budapest, Prague and Moscow. The old world wasn’t devoid of prejudice or discrimination, but with persistence, skill and not a little cleverness Aldridge outflanked, outlasted and ultimately shamed his enemies.
Why his story has never been filmed has always baffled me. There have been a number of valuable biodramas, dating back to Ossie Davis’s Curtain Call, Mr. Aldridge in 1963, none of which made very big waves. Now the Tricycle Theater’s Red Velvet is visiting St. Ann’s Warehouse from London, and it is a must-see. The playwright Lolita Chakrabarti doesn’t try to relate Aldridge’s whole eventful biography but rather concentrates on his debut at Covent Garden in 1833, when he replaced the suddenly incapacitated Edmund Kean as Othello and won the respect of many theater colleagues while receiving vicious reviews. These events are seen in flashback as the old and ailing Aldridge is winding down one of his stressful late-life continental tours.
The show is directed by the Tricycle’s new artistic director Indhu Rubasingham, and what makes it particularly powerful is the lead performance by Adrian Lester. Lester vividly paints not only Aldridge’s private character but also the disarmingly bold and audacious contours of his style of declamatory acting—considered avant-garde in the 19th century though to us it necessarily looks outsize and extravagant. Chakrabarti, an actress, artfully weaves heated debates about acting into the facts of the biodrama, which lends her play more intellectual substance than most such works have. Fascinating, infuriating, enlightening: Red Velvet is an invaluable opportunity to savor and understand the achievements of an astonishing theatrical pioneer.