A CONVERSATION WITH PLAYWRIGHT LOLITA CHAKRABARTI
Red Velvet playwright Lolita Chakrabarti visited Chicago Shakespeare as the cast completed its five-week rehearsal period prior to Opening Night. She spoke with audience members following a Preview performance on December 6, 2017.
Lolita, how did you first come to know the story of Ira Aldridge, and how did you go about researching this history?
I found Ira in 1998, when my husband, who is an actor, did a reading about him and came back home that evening and asked, “Have you heard of this guy?” And I’d done Drama O-level, Drama A-level, I went to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and I’d been working for about eight or nine years as an actor in the UK, and I’d never even heard of Ira Aldridge. So I started to research him—and this was pre-internet, so I had to find books! Some people still remember that time... And, at least back then, London wasn’t a great repository for black history of any sort. But when I came to L.A., I bought everything from an African-American bookshop, everything. And I found books in the theater museum library, too. I researched Ira for three years, trying to find his story, because it was compartmentalized in so many different places.
All the facts about his life that I make reference to in the play are true. Ira Aldridge had the most extraordinary life. He was born in 1807 in New York, moved to London in 1824, played Covent Garden in 1833, and when he died in 1867 he was given a state funeral in Poland. He was knighted, he was awarded, he was the highest-paid artist ever in Russia at the time—for ten performances in Russia, he was paid the equivalent of half a million pounds in today’s money. He sold out the Bolshoi Theatre nights over. He was an extraordinary character. He met Hans Christian Anderson, he hung out with the Tolstoys, he was lauded by royalty. I found all this information and, with every story, I’d come home and go, “Oh my God, do you know what he did?” He lived five minutes from where we live in London, on a road called Hamlet Road. He had this beautiful, big house, which is a bit knackered now, so they’re fixing it up. It’s got a blue plaque, which is our way of marking [buildings associated with] eminent historical figures in the UK. When I would take my daughter to flute class, I would salute him, “Ira, I got you.” But finding out what his history was really difficult.
How did you find the story that you wanted to tell within the research you did over all those years?
I wrote thirty drafts of this play over seven years. It was rejected from every theater in London; though I was a well-known actress, I was an unknown playwright. How I settled on the story that you saw tonight is that I, Lolita, a professional actor, am woven into this play as much as Ira. The characters you meet are composites of people I’ve worked with, people I’m sure you may know of (though none are identifiable). When you get your break in acting, it is rare. You maybe get one break, if you’re lucky. Maybe you get two. If you’re really lucky, you get three. But when you do get your break, your hopes and dreams change. You think, “Okay, I’m going to really attack this. It’s going to change everything for the rest of my life.”
I thought about Ira getting to Covent Garden after nine years of touring Britain to fantastic reviews (because around the provinces, he received amazing reviews), and he got his chance taking over from Edmund Kean, the Laurence Olivier of his generation at one of the royally patented theaters of Britain. He must have thought, “This is my break.” But, unfortunately for him, Parliament was voting for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies at the time [which would severely impact the livelihoods of the plantation owners reliant on slave labor]. The newspapers were owned by the same rich people who owned the plantations in the colonies—not so different from how it is today, I think. So the press wasn’t kind. The reviews that you hear the actors read in the play are [quoted verbatim] from the newspapers of the day. His “break” disappeared. How would that affect you? What would that do? But Ira Aldridge [went on to be] hugely successful across Europe. By the end of his life, he was a star. He was very wealthy and bought several houses back in London. I wanted to look at that person and who he was. Maybe it’s true in other professions, too, but in acting you meet some really impressive, very successful people, and they are never satisfied. Never. There is a carrot dangling in front of you that you feel like you never get a bite of. And I thought Ira must have been that person: somebody so successful, but he never cracked London, and he never played the legitimate stage in London again. So that was how I discovered the story that I wanted to tell.
With those thirty earlier drafts preceding this final script, was the original story that you wrote very different?
Yes, the earlier drafts were very different, and yet the soul of the story is the same. There are certain elements from the first version still and the odd line that have survived. And there are so many “ghosts” of characters who were once in the story who are still behind this play—including people like Mr. and Mrs. Wilburforce, who contributed greatly to the abolition of slavery. Edmund Kean was in the play in earlier drafts—a fantastic character, he was a dirty, horrible, nasty, talented man. They’re all gone, but they’re all in the background of it; I can feel them when everybody’s doing the play, they’re there. So it’s very different, but the heart is the same.
Why did you cut characters and keep rewriting and rewriting?
Because the story was all over the place. I went from downtown New York when Ira was eleven years old, to the docks where he left his father and his brother and his mum, to Glasgow University where he came to England first. I travelled all over—the poor designer and director who would have had to do that version! But I’m writing the film script now, and Edmund Kean has come back into the story, and it’s lovely because Edmund Kean is a deep part of me, really. He’s a miserable sot. It’s lovely to bring him back into the film.
Lolita, how did you find the character of Ira Aldridge?
There are bits of Ira’s diary in this 1958 biography by Herbert Marshal and Mildred Stock, and his letters to and from bookings across the country and the world. In developing his character, I have combined myself with who I think he was—an artist with a desire to tell your story, to put yourself in the story, and engage an audience. It’s that simple, really.
How did he do that? Then? There was nobody like him. The other black performers of the time–there was weird stuff going on: an African tribe that would eat raw liver onstage The Venus Hottentots, who were African; there was a Jim Crow performer, some guy who blacked up and then ate lazy slave people. And there was Ira Aldridge doing Shakespeare. What audacity! People who do things like that now, who are extraordinary and break the mold and go against what everybody’s saying—who is that person now?
What was so different about Aldridge’s performances from other actors performing Shakespeare at that time?
Sometimes I’m asked, “Was he really a great actor, or was he just unusual?” He might not have been to everyone’s taste—who is?—but I think he was a great actor and I think, culturally, as a child of an immigrant, you have a different perspective on life because you have a different culture behind you. British people, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, can be kind of uptight. There’s a certain amount of deportment and behavior and tidiness about Britain—about middle-class and upper-class Britain, anyway. And I think that Aldridge definitely brought a rawness. They talked about him being a “lion.” There was one review that said he was relieved to see that the actress, Ellen Tree, was alive still at the end of the performance. When someone asked him, Aldridge replied, “Oh, I’ve only killed a couple.” I love that. What a cheeky guy!
The reviews about Aldridge, particularly the later ones in Russia, are very detailed about his performance, about how he looked, how he moved, how he made you feel. They’re extraordinary historical documents. You can read descriptions of the naturalism of his performances in his later reviews around Europe. [It was in direct contrast to] “teapot acting”—a version of acting where you’d stand, like a teapot, and deliver your lines facing the audience. It was a very mannered style of performance at the time because these theaters where they performed were huge. And the lighting wasn’t very good, so you had to do big gestures. I think Aldridge brought a naturalism, yes, and that was the start of naturalism which was introduced to the stage in the nineteenth century.
What was it about Ira Aldridge that prevented him from hearing Pierre’s warning to “slow down,” to be careful, mindful of giving his audiences time to become accustomed to his groundbreaking appearance as the first black man performing Othello on London’s West End?
I think tenacity is really important in this profession—and the conviction that you’re deeply talented is very important, as well. If you don’t have it, you’ll fall. This is a profession that deals in passion, and you have to commit to that passion as you perform. Recently, I was playing Gertrude in Hamlet, and one day I came home and had bruises on my wrists. [As immersed as I’ve been in Ira’s story for a decade, I looked at the bruises and thought,] “This truly is art imitating life, imitating art, imitating life...” That’s what happens!
And I didn’t want to portray Ira to be a “noble black man,” because that’s just boring. And nobody is, right? I mean, we’re all flawed. We’ve all got our stuff. And that’s what makes us interesting and challenging. I wanted to make a gray area. I wanted him to be a fantastically passionate, excellent performer who had a blind-spot to his own limitations, but was judged in the wrong way. He wasn’t judged for his performance not being good. He was judged for being a black man.
When he toured in Europe, how was he even understood as an Englishman? Why did other countries seem more open to him than England or the United States did?
He started touring across Europe in 1852. The first time he went to France, and to start with he took an English company with him. But, typical actors, they moaned their heads off and went, “Oh, for God’s sake, we’re in a foreign country.” So, he just went, “Oh, you’re too expensive and you’re whiney.” He dumped the British company and instead he performed in English with local actors who performed in their own language. In Germany, they would speak German and he would speak English. How anyone knew what their cues were—the pauses [between characters’ parts] must have been forever! But it worked, apparently, and he did that in Russia, as well. I think he charmed them. He learned some German, though, and he did a kind of pigeon-German version of one of his Abolition plays. Who knows what he was saying, but that’s what he did.
England was tidy and terrified of revolution, but across Europe there was revolution everywhere—and nowhere more than in Russia. Serfdom, Russia’s equivalent of slavery, was being abolished at the time. All these people who had suddenly been freed in Russia felt, “Oh, my God, this black man represents us. He is speaking Shakespeare, he is speaking poetry so beautifully, and yet he was born the lowest of the low. Look what’s possible if you give people freedom!” I love this story. In Hungary and Austria, he got sixteen curtain calls. Sixteen curtain calls, I would kill for sixteen curtain calls!
Connie—a Jamaican employed as a servant to the company at the Theatre Royal—is such a quiet, essential, presence in the story as the other outsider in the room. Can you talk about her as a character?
Connie is based on the staff that I see at Gatwick and Heathrow Airports in London, where there are all kinds of travelers, international, glamorous people travelling here and there. All the staff there is either Asian or black—and they are always silent. But as I’m glamorously walking through, I don’t ask them their story, and I’m sure they’re more interesting than I am. They were the inspiration for Connie.
Although she is quiet, I think she has a hell of a lot to say. To me, Connie is the soothsayer, the truth-seeker. I like the idea that, as the only two black people on the stage, you might think, “Well, they’ll get on.” But there’s so many things at play here and, in England, it’s class. Class is the thing that’s at play. And they’re from completely different classes. We think, “They should get on, they’re both black, right?” But, no. People are more complex than that.
Some of the lines in the play sound as though they were written in response to today’s news. Have you updated lines for this production?
No, history just repeats itself, right? We learn a bit, we move backwards, we move forwards. Our evolution isn’t that complicated, really. Immigration has been an issue for centuries. I’m working on a project now that’s based in the seventeenth century and it’s an issue then. We never get over immigration. So, no, those are the original lines from 2012, which were all lurking at that time, too. The bit about Russia has become pertinent, as well. It’s interesting watching it here, now, with all that’s going on in your country, and in mine. It’s got a different resonance now, perhaps, a slightly more sinister resonance now. But no, it was all there in the original production back in 2012.
What Ira Aldridge did was remarkable. And he was still a teenager when he decided to leave the States—at a time when slavery was legal even in the state of New York where he was born, the son of a free black man who peddled straw in New York City’s streets. It makes you wonder how it was ever possible that he led the life he did.
But you hope for better. You think you can change the world when you’re young, don’t you? In America, Ira would have had no chance of any kind of career. In later years, after the Civil War had been won, he could go back to the States. He did have a hundred-day tour booked in America, but he never made it there—he died just before he got there. He could never have pursued that passion of his in America, but Britain was a place of freedom. Black people were free in Britain at the time. So anything’s possible with freedom. I don’t know whether he would have seen those reviews coming, the vitriol of the reviews. But I like to think he was idealistic and hopeful, that he believed that he could change the story just by his very presence. Before every performance he did, he gave a speech about slavery. He was very active in dispelling peoples’ prejudices. I think he made himself an ambassador, which, to a certain extent, I sometimes feel like I do, as well, when I talk about his story.