The story of the first Black actor to play Othello in England – at The Crescent from 13th – 20th July

In 1833, acclaimed British actor Edmund Kean – performing in blackface – collapsed on stage whilst playing Othello. A Black actor named Ira Aldridge was asked to take over the role. But, as the public rebelled over the abolition of slavery, how would the cast, critics and audience react to the revolution taking place in the theatre?

Lolita Chakrabarti’s powerful stageplay Red Velvet tells the ensuing story through a mix of truth and imagination, revealing the story of a man who broke every convention of the day as he suffered intense racism at the hands of both critics and his fellow actors.

‘Ira Aldridge was an amazing man,’ says Chakrabarti. ‘There was so much to choose from in terms of what I could put into the play. I just felt educated learning about Ira and I also felt really inspired by him, as well as frustrated that so few people knew about him.’

Hugh Blackwood and Papa Yentumi play Ira Aldridge at two distinct points of his life, both actors having themselves previously played Othello at The Crescent, Blackwood in 2004 and Yentumi last year, 2023.

While it might be tempting to think blackface was long ago confined to the past, Blackwood sees it differently.

‘I do remember shows with blackface actors at The Crescent,’ says Blackwood, a member of the theatre for 40 years. ‘I saw a production of Our Country’s Good which had an actor who blacked up, and when I’ve talked to people who were involved in that production, there’s a sense of embarrassment and immense discomfort. But it was of its time. People say things have changed now, and of course they haven’t. But it’s changing. It’s a process.’

Chakrabarti’s play is an astonishingly adept work that constantly defies expectations. Whilst much of the play deals with the horrific racism that Aldridge faced with both grace and dignity, it also throws in some outrageous comic moments, often from the son of Edmund Kean, outraged that a Black man is taking over the role of Othello from his father.

‘I think that will surprise people,’ says Yentumi. ‘Yes, it deals with tough issues like race and gender and inequality, but at times it’s a hilarious play. You have those moments where you’re laughing at something and then you think, ‘Ooh, can I laugh at that?’’

Growing up in Birmingham, Chakrabarti made regular visits to the Midlands Arts Centre and Birmingham REP, instilling her love for theatre and beginning her journey to writing Red Velvet. Still a working actor herself as well as a playwright, Chakrabarti couldn’t help but see parallels to her own career when looking at Ira’s incredible journey.

‘If you look at any story from a different point of view, you always get a different picture,’ says Chakrabarti. ‘I was looking at Ira from my own perspective of being an actor of colour in Britain now. I was telling a story from over 150 years ago and going, ‘Sure, it would have been different…but maybe not that different.’’