‘Red Velvet’ and ‘Blackta’ Tackle Race on the London Stage

Blackta was born out of Nathaniel Martello-White’s RADA frustrations. Courtesy of Blackta

Ira Aldridge, one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of his era and whose roles included Shylock and Lear, got his big break at the age of 26, when the English tragedian Edmund Kean took ill on stage. Standing in as Othello in 1833, at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, the young African-American from provincial repertoire ran the gauntlet of the prejudices of his day and prevailed. Touring Europe as a French chevalier and Russia’s highest-paid artiste, he was given a state funeral in Poland in 1867.

Aldridge’s remarkable life has inspired a resonant play, Red Velvet, at London’s Tricycle Theatre. The pioneering thespian, who moves from disillusioned dotage back to audacious youth, is played with magnetic power by Adrian Lester, who in a neat echo is one of the most respected Shakespearean actors of our own time. Fêted in stage roles from Hamlet to Henry V, Lester is also known to many as a sophisticated con man in the primetime TV series Hustle. Lester’s triumphant versatility as a black British actor—along with other renowned Shakespearean leads including David Harewood, David Oyelowo, and Chiwetel Ejiofor—underlines how far theater in Britain has come since Aldridge’s day toward making talent, not race, the decisive factor in an actor’s career.

Yet Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet coincides with another new play on the London stage, provoked by the vicissitudes of making it as a black actor in Britain. Blackta by Nathaniel Martello-White, at the Young Vic’s studio theater, is an absurdist Waiting for Godot in the antechamber of an audition room, where seven men compete to impress “The Thing” with inane and humiliating tasks. Far from “colorblind casting” being the rule, complexion is destiny in this astringent satire about a “game that’s rigged,” which echoes Aldridge’s anguish over the centuries.

The timing of these plays is curious. There may never have been a better moment to be an actor of color in British theater. This fall, as part of the cultural Olympiad’s World Shakespeare Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) staged an all-African Julius Caesar, which toured to Moscow in November, as well as an India-set Much Ado About Nothing. Both uncovered fresh meaning in the classics, and transferred from Stratford-on-Avon to London’s theatrical heartland. There have also been recent eye-opening revivals at the National Theatre of neglected classics such as Errol John’s Trinidadian yard play, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl (1958) and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman (1975). Yet an eruption of complaints against the RSC in October for casting only three actors of East Asian heritage in The Orphan of Zhao, a Chinese classic to open in December, suggests many believe actors of color are still not finding the opportunities their talent merits.

While 19th-century audiences applauded Aldridge’s Othello, many reviews were vile. “Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English,” one opined, while for another, “an African is no more qualified to personate Othello than a huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff.” The play closed after only two nights, and it was 15 years before the Manhattan-born actor returned to the London stage. Acting rivalries may have fueled some hostility, with race a pretext for grabbing the plum parts. As the play makes clear, some of the hurdles facing Aldridge have also dogged women’s stage careers. Yet Othello played in a theater built on plantation profits, during street riots over the abolition of slavery in the British Empire—an act passed later the same year. Some reviews were intended to discredit not only Aldridge’s race, but also the abolitionist cause.

For Chakrabarti, who is also an actor and of South Asian descent, the crux is the willingness to accept a “black person as an actor playing a role.” As directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and staged within a gilt proscenium arch that incorporates the players’ dressing rooms, Red Velvet spotlights the magical transformation of acting. White players double and treble up—as Poles, Germans, Frenchmen, whether doddering or nubile. In Shakespeare’s day all players were boys, and Aldridge “whites up” as Lear—although his habit of wearing one white glove while carrying the other may have signaled defiance. Yet while theatrical conventions are fluid, social attitudes may be less so. For Kean’s son, Charles, actors are “colorless canvasses on which to paint.” Yet Aldridge alone is seen not for his artistry, but as playing out his identity—or rather, others’ notions of it. Partly encouraged by his pioneering naturalism, some in his audience assumed they were watching not an actor but a murderous Moor, indecently pawing Desdemona. As Aldridge objects, “when Kean plays the Moor, we’re amazed at how skillfully he descends into this base African tragedy but with me it seems I’m revealin’ my true nature.”

Such imprisoning assumptions strike a chord with Lester, 44, who helped shape the play as Chakrabarti’s husband (they met at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, or RADA). “No matter what I do, I’ll forever be working my way through a cloud of preconceptions,” he tells me. After leaving RADA in 1989, he became “angry and determined,” turning down many roles where “the color of a person’s skin was being used to denote a character trait.” Yet he is confident that, as in Aldridge’s day, talent “fueled by frustration” enlarges perceptions as to what an actor can do.

Red Velvet In Red Velvet, Adrian Lester plays Shakespearean great Ira Aldridge. Courtesy of Tristram Kenton

Blackta, too, stresses the emotional cost of a dehumanizing denial of talent. ­Martello-White, 29, has acted in the National Youth Theatre and the RSC. But his first play grew out of a “collective frustration” shared by black peers at RADA. “A lot of white actors’ careers were snowballing, while we hit so-called glass ceilings,” he says. “I know it’s a hard industry, but in terms of that momentum, it wasn’t happening for us.” Not only do tensions build in the play between friends jostling for the
same few parts, but the candidates—who range from a cynic to a nihilist to a ­fantasist—are named after their complexions: Black lands African and “slave” roles, while Yellow and Brown compete for the mixed-race love interest. “The acting industry is so visual—each of my friends had a different view of how they’re seen,” says ­Martello-White, who also aimed to show “how degrading it is to define people by a shade or color.” Rather, “as long as character is defined, people will buy into it.”

Suspension of disbelief is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. A contemporary of Aldridge thought his “monstrous” performance would make Shakespeare’s “indignant bones kick the lid from his coffin.” Yet Othello was written at a time of global expansion, before the transatlantic slave trade or the pseudoscientific racism that underpinned it, when the “noble Moor” was a figure of dignity as well as curiosity. In our own globalized era, the Tricycle Theatre in northwest London is in the ethnically multifarious heartland explored by Zadie Smith’s latest novel, NW. For such audiences, the anguish over casting may soon be history.