Pomona production of ‘Red Velvet’ shares African American actor Ira Aldridge’s story

Kyle Lee PO ’20 plays Ira Aldridge in “Red Velvet” on Nov. 21. (Domenico Ottolia • The Student Life)

“Red Velvet,” a play based on African American historical figure Ira Aldridge, hit the stage in November at Pomona College’s Allen Theatre, an in-the-round black box stage, allowing the audience to see the stage from all angles and be inches away from the actors.

Directed by Kenshaka Ali, the play, which ran from Nov. 21 to Nov. 24, tells the historic story of Aldridge, the first African American actor to be offered the role of William Shakespeare’s Othello in 1833. Filled with stage combat, dance and a mix of warm and cool toned lighting, the 5C adaptation of “Red Velvet” featured a unique spin on Aldridge’s story, which follows his acting career after the British Parliament abolished slavery in the U.K. 

Cast member Emma Paulini PO ’21, who played Ira Aldridge’s wife Margaret, expressed how valuable it was for her to engage in conversations with the cast about how to put on an authentic and meaningful performance.

“It was just a really powerful story to be part of,” she said. “We had a lot of great discussions as a cast with the director, delving deep into overarching themes, but then also finding the nuances within our characters and like humanizing them and bringing them off the page.” 

The play was part of the senior project of Kyle Lee PO ’20, who took on the role of Aldridge. He said he was drawn to the character because of Aldridge’s phenomenal story.

“I think what really appealed to me about ‘Red Velvet’ was [how] it’s sort of the world’s biggest underdog story,” Lee said. “It’s a story that is not well known, [but] it should be really well known … The story of Ira Aldridge’s life is this fantastic tale of triumph.”

Lee had both the responsibility — and the pressure — of playing such a complex and influential figure. 

“I’ve had other roles, and I think each role requires its own research, its own amount of work that you have to put behind it,” he said. “But this is the first time I played someone who really existed.”

He elaborated on how the process of embodying Aldridge’s confident spirit and command of emotion was daunting for him as an actor.

“It was scary for me because the more I researched him, the more I realized how big a person he was,” Lee said. “I was reading articles about how his acting is phenomenal and boisterous and alive, so I have to not only act as a person, but when I’m acting as him acting, I have to be this [person who is] really alive and passionate and exciting.”

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Lee worked closely with Ali to reimagine Aldridge’s arduous life story of an actor downtrodden from incessant discrimination and put a different perspective on the character than is usually told, painting the actor as someone who was ultimately successful at his craft.

“[Aldridge] is supposed to go insane at the end, and it’s supposed to be this tragedy,” Lee explained. “[Ali] and I talked a lot about it, and this [plot point] is where I do feel … he really wanted to see where I was at in terms of how I was going to portray [Aldridge], because we felt like [the traditional storyline] was doing [Aldridge] and people of color a disservice.” 

Lee also discussed how Aldridge eventually became a successful actor, which past renditions of “Red Velvet” may not have thought to mention.

“He died at the top [of his career],” Lee said. “He died with a family, and he had people who loved him. So I was very happy with the way the play [ended].”

The cast, with such a heavy topic to portray, was a tight-knit group. For Emily Cummings PO ’23, “Red Velvet” was her first show at the 5Cs. 

She discussed how the cast’s close community contributed to the show’s success.

“Our director [had us] … do all these bonding exercises,” she said. “You need a lot of things to bond over [given] the seriousness of the play. We had our love of theater [and] our dedication to it.”

Lee expressed hope that this production of “Red Velvet” can repaint Aldridge’s theatrical legacy with care and show the ways in which Aldridge has impacted black theater history and theater students as a whole.

“You know, we see his legacy in [modern actors like] Paul Robeson — really, in all black actors to this day. So, I think this was a labor of love as much as it was about teaching you about someone,” Lee said. “I was so grateful for this experience.”

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