Red Velvet: A Story Both Triumphant and Tragic

Origin Stories That Matter. Stories: Some Forgotten or Never Told Before, Of People’s Amazing Achievements in Difficult Times and Difficult Situations.

Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash

Red Velvet tells the true story of African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807–67). The playwright (and actor) Lolita Chakrabarti brings this fascinating story to vivid life and her husband Adrian Lester plays the part of Aldridge.

Today I’m revisiting the story, of a play/book review I wrote some time ago which I’ve revised for today’s story.

Red Velvet: A Story Both Triumphant and Tragic Case Study

The story begins and ends in a theatrical dressing room, where Aldridge is preparing to play King Lear in the last year of his life. Adrian Lester, in playing the lead role at the Tricycle Theatre London, beautifully captures the pained dignity and irritation of the ageing, ailing actor preparing to play Lear in white face paint not long before his own death.

The story then moves back in time to 1833 and to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. Aldridge is drafted in to play Othello when Edmund Kean, the great Shakespearean actor collapsed during a performance.

What should have been a breakthrough for Aldridge became a setback that haunted him for the rest of his life, despite the fact that he was the recipient of many honours, and became the highest paid artist in Russia. This was because of the racist reviews by the British press along with the deep discontent from some of the actors in the theatre over the manager’s decision to replace Kean with a black performer.

Lester gives a strong impression of the power of Aldridge’s playing and stage presence. He thrillingly replicates the charisma of the young Aldridge and the idealistic passion of the twenty-six year old, through to the weight of his weary disillusion towards the final chapter of his life.

Thankfully Lester has long-since broken the mould in roles that Aldridge did not get a stab at, and with a nice twist of fate starred as Othello at the National Theatre London.

Book Wisdom

The poignancy of Aldridge’s story was beautifully told in Red Velvet by Chakrabarti. She gives a social and historical context for the story while also providing contemporary insights. That Aldridge, as a black actor, was not only playing the lead role on a London stage, but the much-coveted role of Othello, was unprecedented. Notwithstanding that he became renowned for the greatness of his Shakespearean performances on his tours outside of the UK, his bittersweet memories of his time in London remained with him.

Interestingly, Chakrabarti took time to chat to the audience at the end of the performance and told the story of how the play had evolved. She first heard of Aldridge in 1998 and was determined to find out more, but there was little known about him. This was pre-internet, and so her research and her quest to uncover his story took her many years and across continents and finally cumulated in this wonderful story with the support of Indhu Rubasingham, the artistic director at the Tricycle Theatre — another woman on a mission to draw in people who don’t go to the theatre, and her desire to make the world a smaller place through theatre was perhaps a goal she shared with Aldridge.

“Theatres and the arts are a positive force for our community in turbulent times.” The National Theatre Home

Sage Wisdom

Origin Stories matter because as people we love stories. We’re curious about a person’s story that made them who they are. Stories help us to understand and relate to each other.

Your origin story matters. To help you tell your story ask yourself the following questions:

  • What was it that compelled you to do what you do?
  • What is something you’ve taken a stand on that benefited you?
  • What is something you’ve taken a stand on that cost you?
  • What triumphs and tragedies have you experienced along the road of your WorkLife journey?
  • What has changed over the course of your WorkLife — ask yourself How? And Why to flesh this out more.

Take time to reflect on these questions and use the self-feedback that comes to you through the answers to help shape and tell your origin story.

Words of Wisdom

There are a lot of threads to this story, but perhaps the one that stands out for me is: in spite of obstacles, how talent shines through. This man, in a period when slavery still existed in America and the British were debating whether to get rid of slavery in the colonies, was performing on a Covent Garden stage.

He defied the preconceived judgements about authenticity because of the colour of his skin. Judgements made before he had even opened his mouth, judgements made before he could demonstrate his talent and ability as an actor. It was his talent supported by a determination to make his career happen, the courage to follow his purpose and passion, the courage to fight adversity that won through.


Aldridge’s legacy is that of an actor whose name has long since outlasted his critics. He is recognised as one of the greatest Shakespearian actors that have ever lived. Aldridge’s story is both triumphant and tragic. His is a story that changed the world, by opening up the world to his fellow actors across many cultures who have followed in his footsteps in establishing their careers while pursuing and fulfilling their purpose and passion.

The reviews I write are by way of reflecting on cultural experiences to include performing, visual and literary arts that touched my heart and my mind and making sense of them in the context of learning and development in both the work-place and the community.

For this story I brought together reviews by a number of theatre critics, and added my own thinking.

Today’s featured book is: Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti

Red Velvet: A Story Both Triumphant and Tragic is part of A Story Worth Telling series. Origin stories that matter. Stories, some of which have been forgotten, or never told before, of people’s amazing achievements in difficult times and difficult situations. Stories where people showed courage in the face of adversity. Stories of celebration and suffering. Stories both triumphant and tragic.

WorkLife Book Wisdom Stories:

The intention of the stories I share is to inspire you through people’s stories of their WorkLife experiences. Through these stories, you will learn about people’s dreams and ambitions, along with the challenges, obstacles, failures and successes they encountered along the road of their WorkLife journey. And how they used the power of book wisdom to help them find the inspiration and guidance to navigate their path to live their WorkLife with passion, purpose and pride.

My hope is that these book wisdom stories will help you throughout the chapters of your WorkLife Story.

I believe stories are a powerful mechanism for teaching, a powerful medium to learn through, and a powerful way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.

Published by Carmel O' Reilly

Carmel O’ Reilly: WorkLife Learning Practitioner & Writer Author of School Of WorkLife Books & Your WorkLife Your Way: Created to help you manage your WorkLife Learning Blogger & Podcaster: Telling people’s powerful stories about WorkLife challenges & successes Founder of My guiding statement is to help people pursue their WorkLives with greater clarity, passion, purpose and pride by creating continuous WorkLife learning programmes that are accessible to everyone.

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