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
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
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
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
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
"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. …