Two Shakespearean Actors, Separated By Three Centuries — Adrian Lester Plays Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet

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31 Mar 2014

Adrian Lester
Adrian Lester

British stage star Adrian Lester talks with about playing Ira Aldridge in the American premiere of Red Velvet.


A slight smile crosses the uncreased face of Adrian Lester when he is told how commercially smart it was to bring Red Velvet to this country right after "12 Years a Slave" swept up most of 2013's film awards and tweaked America's awareness of the tragedies that befell talented, learned African-Americans in the 19th century.

By any other name, Red Velvet would be 40 Years an Actor, telling a comparable (if less violent) story of persevering against the brutal, bigoted forces that prevailed.

"Commercially smart" is hardly the way Lester sees it. Nor does his wife-playwright, Lolita Chakrabarti. Nor does their director, Indhu Rubasingham, the Tricycle Theatre's artistic director who pedaled the piece from a tiny stage in London to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, where it opens March 31 and runs through April 20.

As actor, writer and director, they have been laboring on the material for years to bring it to dramatic life — first as a screenplay, then as a play, and eventually back to a screenplay. Nobody stepped up to transfer Red Velvet to the West End after its Tricycle engagement — this, after London's Critics Circle had named Lester its Best Actor and Chakrabarti its Most Promising Playwright — so they set sail for St. Ann's, where there has already been interest expressed in taking the work to Broadway. It would mark the Main Stem bow of Lester, one of England's leading classical actors.

"Tying it to '12 Years a Slave' works in that sense — but only in that 'Oh, here's another character who has been overlooked in history,'" conceded Lester. "The two characters are actually very different, and what happens to them is very different."

But the racial bigotry that attacked, distorted and stymied their lives is the same. Red Velvet — the stuff of which theatrical curtains are made — is the surprising story of Ira Aldridge, the only African-American among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. Aldridge's career ran counter to the color scheme of his times: While Caucasians were putting on blackface for minstrel shows, he was "whiting-up" to do Shakespeare. Born and educated in New York, he performed The Bard abroad, playing to crowned heads of Sweden, Germany, Scotland, Prussia and Russia.


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