Ira Aldrich was an African-American actor who was born in New York city in July, 1807. When he was seventeen he emigrated to England to continue his acting career which was not possible in the United States at that time. He became well known while touring the provinces and in 1833, he played Othello at Convent Garden in London for two performances.
The play, Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, which is running at Shakespeare and Company until September 13, focuses on that event in Aldrich’s life. This is the play’s American premiere. It was performed in 2012 in London with Adrian Lester, Chakrabarti’s husband, as Ira Aldrich. In this production Aldrich is played by John Douglas Thompson, who has also performed Othello at Shakespeare and Company.
Bob and I interviewed the director, Daniela Varon, John Douglas Thompson and Joe Tapper who plays Pierre Laporte, the theatre manager who hires Aldrich, early in the rehearsal process. Although we learned a great deal as we talked with them, nothing prepared us for the reality that is presented on the stage. This is a play which engages you each moment when you are watching and which you discuss and savor afterwards, recalling favorite moments. Not only does Ira Aldrich come alive, but the world of 19th century theatre does as well. Theatres were huge then and the groundlings were not standing in front of the stage as they were in Shakespeare’s time but were in the galleries and had to be reached.
However, this is more than a history lesson about theatre. It is a compelling, relevant play performed by a talented cast led by John Douglas Thompson and directed with skill by Daniela Varon.