ST. PETERSBURG — Jose Rufino earned a master's degree in theater without hearing of Ira Aldridge, the character he portrays in Red Velvet starting this weekend at Freefall Theatre.
Lolita Chakrabarti's play tells the true story of the first black professional actor to play the title role in Othello. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge moved to England in his early 20s and became one of Europe's most celebrated actors. Austrian emperor and arts maven Franz Josef I was a fan, as were the royalty who knighted Aldridge.
Chakrabarti spent seven years developing the 2014 play that has turned heads off-Broadway and won an Evening Standard and Critics Circle Award. Its zeroes in on two performances in 1833 in Covent Garden, when Aldridge replaced the legendary Edmund Kean as the Moor. Despite Shakespeare's text, companies had only cast white actors in the role.
When Kean collapsed on stage during a performance, manager Pierre LaPorte asked Aldridgeone — who by 1833 had already performed on all of the continent's biggest stages except this crown jewel, the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden — to step in.
"It's extraordinary," Rufino said. "For a black man at that time to do what he was doing at that time was unprecedented. It's nothing short of a miracle. He is a giant in my eyes. I am basically standing on his shoulders."
Yet in the 19th century, the Shakespearean actor was left out of critical history texts and still is far from a household name.
"I had never heard of him," said Christopher Rutherford, Red Velvet's director, "and I'm a Shakespeare nerd."
The story opens in 1867, the last year of Aldridge's life, in Poland. Backstage before his performance as King Lear, an ambitious young reporter has won over the brusque actor, who agrees to an interview. Before returning to the dressing room, scenes take place at the Theatre Royal for those performances that defined his career.
Besides Aldridge, the play has only one other black character, a female theater assistant.
"You would think that when you want to do a play about people of color, you want to do it with a full cast," Rutherford said. "But in this story, this playwright knew — this is a black man in a world of white people, and that's what we see."
Aldridge's sudden integration into the cast was both awkward and game changing. Though Kean himself is said to have approved of the choice, another cast member in Othello, Kean's son, did not. Meanwhile, the streets outside were teeming with protests as Parliament moved toward passing the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which affected British colonies.
Aldridge brought about even greater changes through his style of acting, which was much more immediate and responsive than the declamatory "teapot" style, closer to oratory than engagement with other actors, favored by many British actors at the time. One of the play's most important moments comes early, in the first rehearsal between Aldridge as Othello and the actor who plays Desdemona. In the script, Aldridge is courteous but firm in his suggestions.
"He didn't take any crap," Rufino said. "He just went in and said, 'I know how to do my job. I am going to show you how to do it. My resume stands on its own, so I really don't need your approval.' "
At times, characters in the play debate the proper approach to acting and their definitions of art. Those kinds of elements, as well as Aldridge's remarkable achievements, make Red Velvet about much more than race.
"Racism just exists in the play," Rutherford said. "The play is more about the way he managed to navigate it successfully without really making it about race. He focused on his job. And his job was to tell the story of Othello."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.