What can a bunch of Brits teach a Brooklyn audience about American history? You might be surprised.
Ira Aldridge was a renowned African-American actor born in New York City in 1807. But the reason it has taken London’s Tricycle Theatre Company to put his story in the spotlight stateside is because Aldridge never achieved great fame in his homeland. Rather, the accomplished Shakespearean thespian was the toast of Europe, where he played weighty roles such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Richard III on stages across the continent to great acclaim.
Now, almost 150 years after he passed away, Aldridge might finally become a big name in his hometown, thanks to Tricycle’s fantastic production of “Red Velvet,” playing at Saint Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo though April 20.
Aldridge’s storied 40-something-year career is a lot to pack into a single play, and “Red Velvet” does not even attempt it. Instead, the production — first staged in London in 2012 and now making its US premiere — opens with the elderly actor at the end of his life, backstage before a performance in Poland, then flashes back to his ill-fated stint playing Othello at London’s Theatre Royal (now the Royal Opera House) in 1833.
Aldridge had already been well received at regional theatres around England, and would go on to play many of Europe’s most prestigious stages. But in London at the time — just months before Parliament would abolish slavery throughout the British Empire — the establishment did not take kindly to a black man taking on the Bard, and his performance was eviscerated in the press.
Adrian Lester (if you watch a lot of BBC America, you are probably familiar with his work; if not, just know he is a big deal across the pond), who himself portrayed Othello with a major British theater company last year, is a formidable Aldridge, playing the role with both charm and pathos. But much of “Red Velvet” explores how the cast and crew of the 1933 production deals with such an audacious casting choice — not to mention the subsequent fallout — and this 2014 ensemble is more than equal to the task, delivering nuanced performances that see the artists weigh their own ethics against the future of their careers.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though — the actors have great fun in the first half of the play spoofing the heavy-handed classical style of acting common at the time, standing like awkwardly posed statues and bellowing every line to the audience with all the subtlety of a Mack truck.
The affable American actor encourages them to loosen up and modernize their style, but as one of his cast mates puts it — “The thing about the English is that we’re open to a point … We like what we know and we know what we like.” As Aldridge and the audience come to learn, he isn’t just talking about dramaturgy.
Ira Aldridge did eventually return to the London stage in the 1850s, where his Othello was finally met with critical acclaim — about a century before the first U.S. production of the play starring a black actor in the lead role alongside white actors would take place — and he became a British citizen in 1863. So perhaps it is England’s story to tell after all.
“Red Velvet” at Saint Ann’s Warehouse [38 Water St. between Dock and Main streets in Dumbo (718) 834–8794, www.stanns