Production highlights life of pioneering black actor

When John Douglas Thompson throws around names like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong,
John Douglas Thompson, shown playing Othello in a previous Shakespeare & Company production, takes on the role again this month as Ira Aldridge in the S&C production of 'Red Velvet,' the story of the first black man to perform Shakespeare in England.
John Douglas Thompson, shown playing Othello in a previous Shakespeare & Company production, takes on the role again this month as Ira Aldridge in the S&C production of 'Red Velvet,' the story of the first black man to perform Shakespeare in England.

Categories: Entertainment

When John Douglas Thompson throws around names like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong, you can’t help but think that one day his name, and that of Ira Aldridge, will be included in that group.


Thompson, an Obie Award-winning actor who was born in England, raised in Montreal and educated at LeMoyne University in Syracuse, plays Aldridge in the Shakespeare & Company production of “Red Velvet,” beginning with a preview tonight and running through Sept. 13 at the Tina Packer Playhouse.

Written by Lolita Chakrabarti, “Red Velvet” highlights the life story and career of Aldridge, an American and the first black actor to perform Shakespeare in 19th century England.

‘Red Velvet’

WHERE: Tina Packer Playhouse, Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St. Lenox, Mass.

WHEN: Previews begin at 2 p.m. today, opening is Aug. 14, runs through Sept. 13; performance times vary

HOW MUCH: $80-$20

MORE INFO: 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org

“I feel very fortunate to get into a play like this, and to have the opportunity to play Ira in a very pivotal chapter in his life,” said Thompson.

“He was the first black man to play Othello in London back in 1833. Whether you’ve heard of him or not, all actors benefit from what he did, and it’d be nice if we can help reclaim him here as the American icon he should be. He has bridges, streets and theaters named after him in Europe, but we don’t know him here in America.”

first production

The play was first produced in London in 2012 with Adrian Lestor playing Aldridge. Daniela Varon is directing the play at Shakespeare & Company, the first all-American production of Aldridge’s story. The cast includes Kelley Curran, Malcolm Ingram and Christina Nelson.

The story follows two big events in Aldridge’s life, one in 1833 and the other in 1867 as he neared death.

“He was a pioneer and a true innovator,” Thompson said of Aldridge, who was born in New York City in 1807.

“You look at people like Jack Johnson, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. They were the real trailblazers. They set the pace, and not only for their own race but for everyone. Ira’s acting set us free. He brought emotion and passion to the stage. You can’t underestimate what he did for all the Shakespearean actors who came after him.”

award-winner

Thompson won the 2014 Drama Desk Award for playing Armstrong in “Satchmo at the Waldorf,” first at Shakespeare & Company and then off-Broadway in New York City. He made his Broadway debut as Flavius in “Julius Caesar” opposite Denzel Washington in 2005, and his Obie award came in 2009 for his performance as the title character in “Othello.”

He also has had many film and television roles, and hopes to do more. “I am pursuing the movies and TV, but the theater is my first love,” he said. “I’ll always be doing theater, and hopefully I’ll always be doing Shakespeare.”

Varon, a New York City-based director and long-time member of Shakespeare & Company, pointed out that Aldridge was born a few years after the French Revolution, and died two years after the American Civil War.

“In a lifetime spanned by revolutions, he was a revolutionary in the theater,” she said. “Chakrabarti’s play is a love letter to the theater, and to the art of transformation, which is its essence. I am thrilled to be part of bringing ‘Red Velvet’ to Shakespeare & Company, and for us to get to know and to honor Ira Aldridge together.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

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