Channeling a Breaker of Barriers ; A Drama Tells the Story of Ira Aldridge, a 19th-Century Black Actor

Article excerpt

After two sold-out seasons at the Tricycle Theater in northwest London, a play about an African-American actor in 19th-centrury Europe is heading to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for a monthlong run.

The story of Ira Aldridge, a 19th-century African-American actor who sought a stage career in Europe, is told in "Red Velvet," a play longtime in the making that has triumphed in London and is now headed to the United States.

The story is gripping. It is the mid-1820s, and Aldridge improbably moves to London while still a teenager, tours the provinces and gets his big break a few years later, when he is asked at the last minute to replace Edmund Kean as Othello at Covent Garden in 1833. Can he overcome the innate prejudice of his fellow actors, the public and the critics? Will he succeed?

When the British actor Adrian Lester was asked, way back in 1998, to do an informal reading of some writings about Aldridge, he was astonished by the story.

"Have you ever heard of Ira Aldridge?" Mr. Lester asked his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, an actress and writer, when he got home. It turned out to be a leading question. The result was "Red Velvet," written by Ms. Chakrabarti, starring Mr. Lester and directed by Indhu Rubasingham, which, after two sold-out seasons at the Tricycle Theater in northwest London, opens at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for a monthlong run on March 25.

"An early instinct told her," Mr. Lester, 45, said in an interview at the Tricycle late last month. "She knew there was a story there."

Ms. Chakrabarti had to cling tenaciously to that belief. Until the Tricycle took on "Red Velvet," she wrote and rewrote the play for more than a decade, meeting with rejection every step of the way.

But after the play's October 2012 opening, it won numerous awards for Ms. Chakrabarti and Mr. Lester and rapturous reviews. "A cracker of a play: gripping, intelligent and passionate," Sarah Hemming wrote in The Financial Times. "History springs into startlingly vigorous life," Kate Bassett wrote in The Independent on Sunday.

Just before it finally was produced, however, Ms. Chakrabarti, 44, said she had been about to give up on the project entirely.

"I was really discouraged by the lack of encouragement," she said by telephone. "So many people had said 'no' that I began to think, 'Maybe we are wrong, and it's really not brilliant.' And when it then went so well, I thought, 'How random it all is."'

Bored between acting jobs, Ms. Chakrabarti had been looking for a writing project. Her imagination, she said, was immediately fired by what Mr. Lester told her.

"Now everything is online and cataloged, but at the time it was pre-Internet, so you had to trawl around bookshops and write letters to libraries, and phone them long distance, and then they would fax you lists of playbills and letters and illustrations," she said. "I found a biography, then some material on the period at a black bookshop on a trip to Los Angeles. The more I read, the more I felt that his history and story were so important and significant. I couldn't believe that no one, even real theater buffs, had heard of him."

Aldridge is an anomaly in theater history: a black actor -- and an American -- who achieved mainstream success in grand Shakespearean roles at a time when no black actor had ever been seen on the stage of a major London theater, and who went on to win considerable renown in Europe, honored with titles and medals by crowned heads of state.

Feeling that the sweep of the narrative was a broad, encompassing social and political history as well the actor's personal story, Ms. Chakrabati thought it should be a film. She wrote a detailed treatment, but no one was interested. Discouraged, she abandoned the project.

"But Ira stayed with me, kept knocking on the door," she said. "In 2000, I was working at the National Theater, in a play Indhu was directing, and I told her about Ira. …