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KPBS Midday Edition

'Red Velvet' Marks A Pivotal Moment In Theater History

Jim Cox
Albert Jones appears as Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s "Red Velvet," directed by Stafford Arima, running March 25 through April 30, 2017 at The Old Globe.
'Red Velvet' Marks A Pivotal Moment In Theater History
GUESTS: Stafford Arima, 'Red Velvet' director Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am three. The historic moment when an African American actor first played on the London stage is the focus of the new play, red velvet. The preview performance starts this weekend at the old Globe. We spoke with the director during rehearsals this week. Tell me what it is about red velvet that attracted you to the project. I have been fascinated by the stories about the other. One of the greatest gifts that they have given to this material is presented this unknown story about a man named Aldrich who really is one of the greatest Shakespeare actors of our lifetime. No one really knows about them. So for me, that was the in to the display. Even for me as a student of the theater, I did not know Aldrich. Interestingly today as we live in the world in 2017, this piece has a social political energy to quit because of the things that are raised within the play that we are dealing with today. For people who are not familiar with this, explain about why it was so significant for Aldrich to be play a fellow and that this was a first that was fairly phenomenal. Yes. Back in the early 19th century, Inland and, on the elite London stage, there was great actors. One of them happen to be a gentleman named Edmund King. He was a Caucasian actor who performed all the roles. He played the roles that were African in dissent. He black faced his persona. His makeup. He played the role. It has never been documented until Aldrich was asked to fill in for the ill Esther King, that a person of color, a black man, graced a London elite stage. That risk to take place for a theater manager to decide, I am going to shake it up a little bit. That was unprecedented. Unfortunately, because of the traditional values that a lot of the theater elite specifically in London had with regard to this kind of presentation, sometimes there is a rehearsal monarchy. There are traditions and values within that monarchy of the theater world. They did not want to be broken or changed. I wrote change them. Importantly, the system that was in place did not accept his visceral acting energy. The reviews for the most part were skating. They were shaded with racial overtones. They did not focus on the task at hand, which was to critique the performance. As a result of this critical backlash, the theater decided to shut down. Ira got to perform for two performances. It is a story about an artist, a man of his time, that against Oliver C, pushed and pushed and pushed and to a two nation energy and found his way on a luncheons -- London stage. He was thrown out of that elite club. He managed to leave London and play the regions and play other countries and became a celebrity in his all -- his own right. He was known for being an amazing actor. There was and acting star dashed -- a style that was similar to Marlon Brando when he graced the stage with a streetcar named desire. That energy had not been seen, a real energy. Aldrich possessed that real energy. He did not leave the teapot style of acting that focused energy out front. He believed that if the scene or the emotional current of the scene required it, you would look directly at your acting partner on the stage. Those are unique styles that Aldrich exercised in his work. For many, it was exciting and enthralling. For perhaps four traditionalist, difficult to swallow. It sounds like research went into putting this production together. Was there anything that you uncovered that surprised you or that information you found was particularly interesting to? What most surprised me was the lack of empathy towards a great artists. I guess I come from a generation that believes that if one possesses the craft and can stand on a stage and sing a Mockingbird or can act Shakespeare, on some level, we forgive or look past imperfections in the persons being, whatever that might be. For me, to know that his talent was undeniable but still because of the color of his skin, there was an apprehension and a visceral response. We do not want that kind of a person on her stage. That disappointed me. For me, the arts have always been, and I pride myself being part of a community that is open, we have an audition and the best person that walks into a room and delivers the monologue or the song, I hire them. I was disappointed to read that the London artistic intelligence was not open to him and that they, I'm anyways, made a very strong attempt to discredit him. They wanted to discredit an artist because of skin color was very disappointing to me. Does the play address how the audience reacted? You talk about the critics. How did the audience react? One of the greatest gifts that he is given us in this interpretation of this life, it is a memory play. He went on the stage and perform the role of a fellow, the audience does ballistic. It is an amazing reference to the amount of standing ovations that they had. The audience responded to this new style of acting it -- it is a real experience, seen this man who is not painted them blackface but a real black man dealing with his jealousies and his marital issues with his wonderful actress with Ellen tree, they loved it. I have felt the audience is the largest barometer of the truth. They loved it. They appreciated it. As theatergoers, and today we are the same, something has that kind of energy or power stage, it is hard not to respond to it in a positive way. Thank you. You are welcome. Thank you.

'Red Velvet' Marks A Pivotal Moment In Theater History
The Old Globe Theatre's production of "Red Velvet" transports audiences to the world of London's Theatre Royal at the beginning of the 19th century to mark the historic moment when Ira Aldridge became the first African American actor to play Othello on the British stage.

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Companion viewing

"Paul Robeson Broadway Othello" (1943 audio recording of Robeson as first black actor to play Othello on American stage)

"Othello" (1952 with Orson Welles as title character and not quite in black face)

"Othello" (1965 with Laurence Olivier in black face)

The Old Globe Theatre's production of "Red Velvet" transports audiences to the world of London's Theatre Royal at the beginning of the 19th century to mark the historic moment when Ira Aldridge became the first African-American actor to play Othello on the British stage.

Lolita Chakrabarti's play "Red Velvet" looks to three tumultuous days in theater history to remind us about an actor that most people have never heard of.

'Red Velvet' Pays Tribute To First Black Actor To Play Othello On British Stage

Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, falls ill and cannot go onstage to perform Othello. Then a young African American actor named Ira Aldridge steps up to fill the role. But no black man has ever played Shakespeare's Othello on the British stage. His performance rocks the theatrical world. Audiences gave him a standing ovation, but mainstream theater critics railed against the break in theater tradition of having white actors perform in black face to play the Moor.

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Director Stafford Arima said he is fascinated by stories of "the other" and was drawn to the play because he did not even know the full story of Aldridge's life.

Albert Jones plays Aldridge. He said he was impressed by "the bravery" of this man who left America for England to perform onstage and "was in awe of his courage."

"It saddened me to know that he wasn't remembered the way that he was meant to be," Jones said.

But hopefully, the play will help correct that and remind people of the pivotal role Aldridge played in theater history.