Red Velvet is one of the most important plays I have ever seen. The story of actor Ira Aldridge, a black actor who in 1833 came to London to take on the role of Othello, after its lead actor Edmund Kean had collapsed on stage. Kean was a highly celebrated name in British theatre and Aldridge was unknowingly taking on far more than just a role. His experience in London haunted him for the rest of his life.
“It’s like being at a crossroads – a point of absolute, unequivocal change. It makes the blood rush.”
I remember the first time my Father told me about white actors ‘blacking up’ to play black characters, and I promise you, aged seven or eight with a love of theatre and film, I was convinced that my Dad had to be making this up. Born in Trinidad and having travelled to London via boat, he had many stories to tell, but this one I didn’t believe. So one day, when we watched Othello with Laurence Olivier, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had so many questions, I was filled with so much confusion – and I never really realised until his passing that this was for a long time, what my Father was used to in his life. I asked him about when he first came to London with something like £60 in his pocket. I wanted to know how he found somewhere to live. My heart broke when he told me that some flats he went to view had signs on the door that read, “No coloureds allowed.” Or that when he went to a pub, the barman just shook his head, pointed at the door and said, “We don’t serve your kind here, you need to leave.” My Dad was the kindest most generous man I’ve ever known. He filled his life with work, much of that charity work, and the idea of someone treating him that way was just, and still is too painful. My Dad was also not actually ‘black’. But his response to this was, “I wasn’t white and therefore I wasn’t welcome.” I honestly don’t know how he did it. How anyone did. And I simply didn’t understand the stories he told me about London in the sixties.
That Ira Aldridge was a working and paid stage actor in the 1830s was something I had never been aware of. And that’s why for me, the story itself was an education. I had no idea that black actors even ‘existed’ during this period. Why didn’t I know this already? Ira Aldridge’s story is surely something everyone and anyone who goes to theatre school should know about right? It’s something to be championed. Or at least you’d think so…
I don’t read reviews about new plays. So the only information I had about Red Velvet was that it addressed the issue of race, was being considered very relevant to today’s #OscarSoWhite outrage and that Adrian Lester was extremely good…
What I did know was right. But Red Velvet is a profound story, full of humour, comedy and wit, but unapologetically brutal and honest. Lolita Chakrabarti managed to weave the story of Aldridge with Shakespeare in such a way that it was simply – genius. I found myself laughing, crying and laughing again. However, there were occasions that I found myself looking at the floor, rather than the stage, feeling utterly ashamed of the world we lived in then – and now. I don’t think a play has ever made me feel quite so mournful of the suffering so many people have endured – all because of this thing called race.
The entire cast was fantastic and it really is a great ensemble, offering moments of light and dark – no pun intended. However, Adrian Lester’s performance was phenomenal. He played Ira with a sense of knowing. It often seemed like the fourth wall had been removed for the audience, and whilst watching the story of Ira, perhaps we were also seeing some of the unjustness that Lester may too have experienced in his career over the years. And that’s what is most poignant. That a story nearly two hundred years old – really could be now – could be today.
Race is an issue. Not a topic. And it is completely relevant, not just because of one year of Academy Award nominations. BAFTA did well to avoid being reeled in to the scandal this year. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance was brilliant – like a piece of theatre in itself. London Fashion Week however has not gone without the discussion of race again as one black model took to Twitter to share that she was asked to bring her own foundation to fashion week as make up artists did not have her colour. Everything I hear is an outrage. But how do we actually learn from it? Move forward from it? Does anyone actually learn from it? Does anything really change?
And whilst the questions I had for my Dad all those years ago have now moved on to questions I have for my own generation and my own industry – the truth is – it has to change. And a play like Red Velvet – with Lolita Chakrabarti’s comedy and sadness combined with the astounding presence and performance from Adrian Lester – is one of the few real vessels I have engaged with in a long time that has the power to provoke long term thought, discussion and I hope change.
Red Velvet ends its run at The Garrick Theatre on Saturday night (27th February), and I truly urge you to get a ticket if you can – for it is an incredible piece of art, one of the most powerful statements I have ever seen on stage and is deeply moving, whether you are white, or black or like me, any of the colours in between.
By Sabina Emrit