Black and White and ‘Red’ All Over: Adrian Lester Portrays the First African-American Othello in ‘Red Velvet’

An unforgettable look at the consequences of generational change.

Adrian Lester. (©Tristram Kenton)

Adrian Lester. (©Tristram Kenton)

Red Velvet, a bio-drama brought from Britain’s Tricycle Theater to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse (and just possibly beyond—to Broadway), makes its most tragic and ironic points merely by reversing the color scheme.

An elderly actor sits backstage at his dressing table, applying white makeup to his ebony skin to pass for a credible King Lear. He is Ira Aldridge, a marquee name long ago kicked to the curb and forgotten, playing to the end of his string at age 60 in Lotz, Poland, in 1867. A little more than 100 years later, he was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame—something that never would have happened in his native America during his lifetime.

His big break was his big breakdown. In 1833, when legendary tragedian Edmund Kean collapsed onstage doing Othello at London’s Theater Royal, he asked Aldridge to take over the role. The Abolition of Slavery Act had just passed, and there were riots. Alridge’s Othello was caught in the crosshairs and ran two nights before the theater was closed down and he took to higher ground, touring the continents.

Adrian Lester, one of the brightest and best of Britain’s classically trained actors, is presengint Aldridge’s case in Red Velvet, a play written by his wife, Lolita Chakrabarti. His performance won him a Best Actor prize from London’s Critics’ Circle. This is his third theater expedition to New York. He played the title role in Peter Brooks’ 2001 Hamlet and Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl’s 1996 As You Like It, both at BAM.

Mike Nichols spotted Lester in drag in the latter and thought he’d try him cleaning The Birdcage.

“He asked me to read for Agador, the housemaid, because in the original La Cage, the character was black—so I did,” Mr. Lester recalled in a recent interview. “I read the part as I was supposed to read it—highly Southern, highly camp—and it wasn’t a good fit. I wasn’t happy with it, although I did the best I could. We sat there, and he said, ‘I think we’re past this point.’ I don’t know if I talked myself out of a job, but I said, ‘I think so, too.’” (Hank Azaria wound up having the hysterical time with Agador.)

Mr. Nichols did cast him for his first Hollywood film, as the increasingly disenchanted political aide in Primary Colors.

“It was so easy to work with Mike,” Mr. Lester said. “He made sure I didn’t try too much, that it seemed effortless.” When Mr. Lester started rehearsals, Mr. Nichols marked the floor out like theater space.

But like most young actors today (he’s 45 and looks nowhere near that), Mr. Lester’s highest profile has come from TV. He spent seven summers filming BBC’s Hustle and gets street recognition from his stateside television series, Girlfriends.

“It’s all good, it’s all good, but I got so immersed in TV that theater and film had to sit quiet. I did Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in London, in a gap of doing Hustle, and decided to stop Hustle, get back on the treadmill and say, ‘Here I am—theater and now film.’”

He took on Othello last year at the National, with Rory Kinnear as Iago, and it was shown in movie houses via National Theatre Live.

Adrian Lester in 'Red Velvet.' (©Tristram Kenton)

Adrian Lester in ‘Red Velvet.’ (©Tristram Kenton)

The declamatory Othello Aldridge presented 80 years ago is a very different animal from the one Mr. Lester presented at the National. “It’s a different style of acting in Red Velvet,” he said. “The play-within-the-play—the performance-within-the-performance—is a scene of Othello in the play as we do it. It’s full of gestures, full of 19th-century expanse, vocal range changes, hand movements. We try to make a modern audience of today feel like they’re sitting in a theater in 1833, watching Othello.”

He had never heard of Ira Aldridge until a theater buff, Edward Thompson, asked him to read six pages of speeches and conversations about the 19th-century actor at the Garrick Club in London. When he got home, he asked his wife, Ms. Chakrabarti, if she had ever heard of him. “She said ‘no.’ I said, ‘You ought to read this.’ She read it and wanted to find out more, and it just evolved.”

Red Velvet grew out of Ms. Chakrabarti’s fascination with the forgotten Aldridge. She originally wrote it as a screenplay that would span most of his life, but after a decade of dickering with it, she decided to zero in on the single, manageable Covent Garden event. The result won her an Evening Standard award and a Most Promising Playwright nod from Critics’ Circle.

The film version may yet go forward, Mr. Lester said. It would be directed by Indhu Rubasingham, who directed the play in New York and London. “The three of us are throwing the balls in the air and saying ‘let’s just see which one lands.’ We still have to prove ourselves onstage. It’s ironic that all the theaters we took the play to said ‘no’—some more politely than others—but when we did get it on, it sold out within four days completely. We still haven’t had somebody banging on our door saying, ‘Hey, let’s take it to the West End.’ We got an opportunity to come to St. Ann’s. We’ve come. We’ll play here, and we’ll see. Every success this play has had has been fought for, pushed for, really worked for.”

What’s next? “The calendar is kinda blank. There are a few lightly penciled marks on it at the moment. Through the next week, two weeks, I think those things will solidify themselves—a possibility of doing a film, a possibility of going back to London, maybe doing a TV thing—and there’s the possibility of taking this to Broadway. People have been sniffing around. We have no idea. Whatever will be …”