Red Velvet, Ira Aldridge & the problems and possibilities of Othello

My field notes today are exactly that, paragraphs shaped from rough notes made after attending the December 1, 2022 performance of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet directed by Cherissa Richards at Crow’s Theatre

Set primarily in 1830s London, bookended by scenes set in 1860s Lodz, Red Velvet stages the encounter between the celebrated Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, the first Black actor to achieve international stardom for his powerful portrayal of Othello, and a company of white actors led by Charles Kean and his soon-to-be-wife Ellen Tree. It’s been over a month since I saw the production, but I continue to ruminate on the powerful ideas it presented. Here are some of the thoughts that linger:

  • As a historian of nineteenth-century Anglo-American performance I was thrilled to see the historical personages I have read about in books and observed in photographs and paintings brought to life on the stage. I have a postcard of Aldridge as Othello on my office door, which I purchased after seeing it in person at the Manchester Art Gallery, and I’ve always been intrigued by his groundbreaking career. Though the characters in Red Velvet are fictionalized, Chakrabarti does a wonderful job of highlighting the social dynamics that defined life as an actor in the early nineteenth-century, from company politics and backstage tea times to enthusiastic fans and complicated relationships with the press. Theatre history has seen something of a resurgence in contemporary theatre of late – due in no small part to the tremendous success of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014) and Paula Vogel’s Indecent (2015) – and so it’s interesting to note that Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet premiered in London at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012 before playing multiple US locations between 2014-2022. I’m curious to know whether Jacobs-Jenkins or Vogel were influenced in any way by Chakrabarti – something to research further perhaps?
Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello, the Moor of Venice. James Northcote (1746-1831). Manchester Art Gallery
  • Though it premiered a decade ago, the central questions animating Red Velvet resonate powerfully today – e.g. who has the right to play Shakespeare? Who can or should play a role like Othello and what happens when a highly skilled actor like Aldridge is limited to a very narrow range of “slave” or “African” characters? So too, do the characters’ debates about language – pronunciation, accents, and specific words – echo ongoing conversations today. Red Velvet demonstrates how British/Anglo cultural hegemony operated through the policing of pronunciation. Aldridge is deemed a “bad” actor because he challenges the dominant aural/oral aesthetic of the 1830s. Chakrabarti juxtaposes criticism of Aldridge’s pronunciation with a stunning scene wherein white actors read reviews of the previous night’s Othello that are peppered with the N-word. This powerful use of archival material (newspaper clippings) lays bare the racism of nineteenth-century London, but also demands that the 2022 audience consider their own relationship to the word, its history, and the structural racism that persists in theatre institutions (this was brought home to me by my awareness that the Crow’s audience was predominantly, though not exclusively, white). 

Red Velvet also raises difficult questions about the association of racialized bodies with “dangerous” or “savage” acts. Whenever Aldridge expresses anger, passion, or – in one critical moment – lashes out violently at another man – his contemporaries assume that he is tapping into his “authentic” self. Such moments confirm their racist equation of Blackness with savagery, excess, untamed emotion, and physical brutality. Playing Othello is simultaneously an opportunity and a trap for Aldridge because the “script of Blackness” (to use Noémie Ndiaye’s term) associated with the role compels him to play into dominant racial stereotypes. Perhaps it is for this reason that Chakrabarti ends the play with Aldridge preparing to play not Othello but Lear. Dressed in a beard and wig in whiteface, he appears at once regal and triumphant. Performing at the end of his life, he has exceeded expectations and pushed beyond the scripts of Blackness to portray another of Shakespeare’s great roles. At the same time, the sight of Aldridge (actor Allan Louis) costumed in such a way that his entire body is concealed (he even wears gloves to cover his hands) raises questions about the limits of performance, the privileging of realism, and the problems of authenticity. The play concludes with Aldridge as Lear reaching out into the darkness of the theatre, his hand grasping for something… The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Is Aldridge reaching to the audience? To a past version of himself? Is he seeking recognition or absolution from us, from himself, or from something else altogether?