• Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on a British stage (San Francisco Playhouse/Ken Levin)Source: San Francisco Playhouse/Ken Levin
A 19th century UK actor who’s powerful presence on stage was overshadowed by the colour of his skin.
Tara Callinan

26 May 2016 - 5:50 PM  UPDATED 26 May 2016 - 5:50 PM

Warning: This article contains graphic language that may upset some readers.

Have you heard of Ira Aldridge? This is the simple question that prompted Lolita Chakrabarti to write a show about the first black actor to play Othello on a British stage.

Entitled Red Velvet, “it is a tragically true story of racism, set against the backdrop of the abolitionist movement in England… Taking place in the same year the slaves were freed,” said artistic director Bill English.

The play is set 1833. Britain is embroiled with racism and Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his generation, has collapsed whilst playing Othello at London’s Covent Garden.

His replacement; Ira Aldridge, a 26-year-old African American who broke the colour barrier for actors in early 19th century Britain.

This controversial decision - to cast a black actor in a black role - was deeply explored in the West Coast Premiere of Red Velvet, now showing at San Francisco’s Play House Theatre in California.

Chakrabarti’s play begins and ends in Poland where Aldridge eventually died at age 59.

But the bulk of the performance takes place in London where Aldridge was racially vilified and removed from centre-stage for having black features.

His debut performance in 1833 was shamelessly slammed by many white, liberal journalists of that time.

“They have brought out a genuine n***** to play Othello,” said one review recounted on stage.

The Times also wrote that Aldridge “was baker-kneed and narrow-chested with lips so shaped that it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English…”

And the British press condemned his performance as "truly monstrous... sufficient to make Shakespeare's indignant bones kick the lid from his coffin.”

The masses could not accept that Aldridge’s face was of natural colour, not tint.

Theatre patrons wanted actors to wear ‘black-face’ and rather have desirable, European features.

In fact, it was only an embarrassingly short time ago - in 1965 - that British Actor Sir Laurence Olivier played Othello in black-face for a film production.

Artistic director Bill English says this is a reminder of the segregated society we still live in today.

Red Velvet resonates in a way which painfully reminds us of how we still battle racism.”

The cast of Red Velvet hope to start a global conversation about the lack of diversity on screen and on stage.

At the conclusion of the show, all actors revert to their original selves and invite guests on stage to discuss the ongoing inequality which exists in their own backyards.

“Theatre is a political act. We must confront life out there on stage in here,” said actor Patrick Russell.

And it didn’t take long before that all-too-important question was raised yet again; who was Ira Aldridge?

“He really was the best man for the job,” said Carl Lumbly who starred as Aldridge in the West Coast Premiere.

According to Lumbly and the cast, Aldridge was admired for his courage and ability to use theatre as a political platform in the 19th century.

Aldridge’s brief but powerful appearance as Othello helped launch the movement which abolished slavery throughout the British Empire. Just three months after his debut performance, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was passed.

In a matter of two performances, Aldridge also managed to change the way traditional Shakespeare was delivered.

He opted for spontaneity and raw emotion rather than the usual ‘tea-pot’ style of acting.

But after being labelled “an unseemly n*****” for his unique approach to acting, Aldridge was forced to work outside of London for the rest of his career.

He went on to tour continental Europe for 15 years and never returned to the Covent Garden.

He did however star as Macbeth and King Lear in the mid-19th century…ironically in white-face.