Ira Aldridge is an unsung hero of the long-running civil rights struggle. Born in 1807, the African American actor fled the U.S. to perform in Europe, where he had a 40-year career and was quite popular in Russia. But how did he do it?
The play begins in a dressing room in Lodz, Poland, in 1867. Aldridge (Albert Jones) is beset by Halina Wozniak (Amelia Pedlow) a naïve and overeager reporter. She wants to know about Aldridge’s life and career, particularly his unprecedented turn at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1833. She wants to know why he never returned.
The action quickly shifts to the production at Covent Garden. The iconic English actor Edmund Kean has taken sick and Aldridge has been recruited to take over as Othello. The director, Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan), plays hide the ball on Aldridge’s race and the cast are, for the most part, stunned when they meet him in the flesh.
The reactions are something to behold. Ellen Tree (Allison Mack), who plays Desdemona, is polite but concerned. Bernard Warde (Mark Pinter) is quietly incensed. Charles Kean (John Lavelle), Edmund’s son and heir apparent to play the lead, is loudly incensed.
The show is both topical and time capsule. The 19th century acting styles are a comedic highlight – gestures on top of gestures. Aldridge wants to introduce some realism: perhaps people should face each other as they speak. Unfortunately, Aldridge’s good ideas are undercut by his arrogance. Tree is a bit put-off, at first, but gradually warms to the idea that they don’t have to do things the way they’ve always done them. She glimpses the parallels in her own situation, a woman on the stage.
The cast is outstanding, particularly Jones, Mack and Lavelle. It’s hard to tell if Kean is so outraged because of Aldridge’s race or because he’s plucked the lead from under him. Lavelle’s rendition of Kean’s pompous acting style is quite hilarious. Special mention to Pedlow, who also plays London actress Betty Lovell, and has the sneakiest one-liners.
Chakrabarti’s script lightens what could be a very heavy night of theater. She resists the urge to deify Aldridge and tries to paint him warts and all. The set is beautifully rendered, with a rotating proscenium arch and slightly disheveled backstages.
So why does Aldridge never return to perform in London, and how does he overcome the racism of the times to have a successful career? The answers to both questions are pretty chilling.