Theater Feature: John Douglas Thompson on “Red Velvet” — Race and Shakespeare in the Nineteenth Century

Few people, even theater enthusiasts, are familiar with the achievement of nineteenth century African-American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. The play Red Velvet may change that neglect.

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Daniela Varon. Staged by at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA., through September 13.

L-R: John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge and Christianna Nelson as Halina in the Shakespeare & Company production of "Red Velvet." Photo: Enrico Spada.

L-R: John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge and Christianna Nelson as Halina in the Shakespeare & Company production of “Red Velvet.” Photo: Enrico Spada.

By Kate Abbott

On the opening night of a production of Othello at the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre, a fellow actor gave John Douglas Thompson a book, Shakespeare in Sable by Erroll Hill.

“I started to read it, and I was fascinated,” he recalls. “There were so many African-American actors playing Shakespeare — not just Othello and Caliban but Prospero, Hamlet, Richard III. It made me feel part of a community. Before that I didn’t know what was out there — I had no examples of people to look to.”

On the cover of the book, a lean man with powerful shoulders beckons in a tunic and cloak. And so Thompson met Ira Aldridge, an international star of the 1830s. “He’s considered the godfather of classical acting,” Thompson explains, “not just the first black actor to play Othello in London but a great actor.” He brought ideas to performing Shakespeare that were far ahead of his time — instead of stylized declination of the verse, Aldridge made a direct connection with the feeling and action in the play, committing himself to the text (in those days the Bard’s scripts were heavily edited for the stage) and to the power of natural movement.

Aldridge was born in New York City in July 1807 and grew up in Manhattan, watching plays at the African Grove Theatre at Bleeker and Mercer streets, where he saw James Hewlett perform Othello with the African Company, the first black American drama group. Aldridge taught himself the craft, Thompson says. His father sent him to the University of Glasgow to become a minister, and Aldridge left school for the stage. He came to England and played his first Othello at 17. He married at 18.

“He was a man,” even then he an adolescent, observes director Daniela Varon. She read Shakespeare in Sable as a teenager, at the same age Aldridge played Othello for the first time, and she admired the courage of a 17-year-old leaving everything he knew to pursue his passion. Aldridge toured England in the provinces, performing in regional shows. Later he would perform throughout Europe for more than 30 years, playing King Lear, Shylock, Macbeth, and other leading roles, part of a popular revival of Shakespeare across the continent. He would become wealthy. Crowned heads of Europe would award him medals of honor.

But long before that, when he was 26, his life changed. While England debated an act that would abolish slavery in the colonies, a legend of Shakespearean acting, the great Edmund Kean, collapsed while playing Othello on stage. And Aldridge had a chance to become the lead actor and a leading voice in a leading London theater — and to change acting itself.

“This moment in time, a turning point in his life, will define him,” Varon says.

Chakrabarti’s play focuses on this moment, on what could have become his big break. Aldridge took an enormous risk, Thompson says, and he must have known it. Accepting that role at that time, the actor tackled a political mission as well. The debate over slavery brought rioters into the streets. Many London newspapers received financial backing from wealthy people who made huge profits from sugar plantations and wanted to keep slavery in the colonies. They did not want London audiences to see a black man performing in a Shakespeare play, creating a fully human character on stage.

Newspapers ran crushing racist reviews, threatening the production, the theater, Aldridge’s career and, Thompson said, the lives of thousands of people that this parliamentary act could touch.

“If he can’t get up on that stage, we lose the argument,” Thompson insists, thinking of Aldridge’s fight to keep the play running. “… there’s too much riding on it. He’s fighting for his whole race.” Despite the hostile critical reception, Aldridge drew standing ovations from audiences and ardent support from actors, who saw that he played what he felt, and that, too, was an act of revolution.

Acting in 19th-century England centered on gestures, Thompson explains. The lines of the body became an expression of art, like a painting. The actors spoke in declamatory, stentorian language, and they always addressed the audience — performers were forbidden to look at each other. They felt, as actress Ellen Tree argues in Red Velvet, that by making direct contact they might confuse illusion with reality.

Thompson gives Aldridge’s robust reply: “Yes, but if the passion isn’t simmering between us, they’ll feel nothing at all.”

“Ira brought a sense of fluidity with these postures and formal gestures,” he says, “and movement, and emotion to the language.” He moved with the text and with the actors around him, searching for the truth in the rhythms of the language.

“Eye-contact helped him to perform,” Thompson explains, “and in his scenes with Ellen it brings out a whole new style. It must have been rare for a leading man to encourage an actress to look at him — it must have been shocking.” At the time, it might have shocked audiences to see desire and anger and violence shown so clearly, to see Aldridge as Othello and Ellen Tree as Desdemona at center stage.


John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge performing the role of Othello in the Shakespeare & Company production of “Red Velvet.” Photo: Enrico Spada.

In the play, Aldridge moves his fellow actors at Covent Garden by listening to them, Thompson says. Leading men then dictated — they did not collaborate. But Aldridge encourages Ellen Tree, the actress who historically played Desdemona to his Othello. For example, he encouraged the leading actress in Othello to experiment and make her own choices. That too was revolutionary. “Lead actors would say Desdemona is this and that’s all she is,” Thompson explains. “He says her feelings about Desdemona are as important as his about Othello. It’s liberating for her. She’s found an equal. … I’m surprised at how liberal he was as an actor.”

Over the course of his career Aldridge brought Shakespeare to many places that had never experienced the plays before, Thompson explains; he held audiences spellbound even when he performed in English while the rest of the cast members spoke another language. In some places he also became their first contact with a black person.

“It must have been fascinating for Aldridge to bring this [Shakespeare] to people who would appreciate it and to encourage a different view of the race he represented,” Thompson says. “He was bringing equality at the same time he was performing.”

Aldridge died two weeks before a U.S. tour would have brought him home for the first time since he left as a boy. He is buried in Poland, Varon says. A local actors’ union still tends his grave. He has a plaque at Stratford-on-Avon, one of 33 actors honored. But few people, even theater enthusiasts, are familiar with his achievement. Varon and Thompson think that Red Velvet, which Shakespeare & Company is giving its regional premiere, will be one way of making him better known.

“A black man living in all parts of Europe, wealthy, the best-known black man in the Eastern [European] world — I don’t have a contemporary example relevant to his successes and his extraordinary life,” Thompson says. “You can look at Paul Robeson, Mohammed Ali .. and what they accomplished in such difficult times. They pale in comparison to him. He should be in our history books as one of our great icons, an inspiration.”

Arts Fuse review of Red Velvet.

Kate Abbott, a writer based in Western Massachusetts, served as editor of Berkshires Week and then Berkshires Week & Shires of Vermont magazine, a year-round weekly arts and coltural publication in the Berkshire Eagle, Bennington Banner, and Manchester Journal newspapers from 2008 to 2015. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of New Hampshire and has published poetry in journals including the Comstock Review and Entelechy International. She enjoys talking with people, walking in the woods, playing contradance recorder, and writing about all three.

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