It’s 1833 and at London’s Covent Garden Theatre Royal famed actor Edmund Kean is set to perform the title role in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” But instead a bit of unexpected theater history is made when Kean falls ill, and American actor Ira Aldridge steps into the role becoming the first black actor to portray Othello on London’s West End and sending shockwaves through the city as Parliament debates the Slavery Abolition Act.

This is the setting for Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama “Red Velvet” which takes into account these historical facts but also builds a profile of Aldridge, an actor who because of his color couldn’t find opportunities in America (the theater he worked with was set on fire) but instead found a career throughout Europe. Despite this success, Aldridge is little known today.

‘Red Velvet’
When: Dec. 1-Jan. 21
Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand
Tickets: $48-$88
Info: chicagoshakes.com

In doing some research of his own, Dion Johnstone, who portrays Aldridge in Chicago Shakespeare’s staging of “Red Velvet,” found plenty of documentation about where Aldridge performed and toured and the companies he performed with but little about his personal life.

“What the playwright has done is expand this and imagine what his personal life must have been like and what the toll of being who he was in that time in history must have taken on him,” Johnstone says.

The Toronto-based Johnstone, who performed many of the Bard’s plays during nine seasons at Canada’s Stratford Festival, returns to Chicago Shakespeare where he previously appeared as Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar” and Helicanus in “Pericles.”

Like Aldridge, Johnstone has a deep love of Shakespeare’s canon, which goes back to his high school days in Edmonton, Alberta. He and his classmates were taking “awkward turns” at reading “As You Like It” in an English class and he recalls, “no one was having any fun.” Their wise teacher challenged them to create and stage their own modern version of the play.

“I was already in drama class so I was the writer,” Johnstone says. “I found modern parallels to the story and characters. Suddenly, it excited the kids who hated it. This detour helped us discover the play in a new way.”

When he played Othello at Stratford (there are snippets of the play in “Red Velvet”), Johnstone remembers thinking “I’m too young to play this role.” But he found advice on how to approach the role in a biography of actor James Earl Jones.

Dion Johnstone, photographed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, found a whole new understanding of Shakespearean roles after reading a biography of actor James Earl Jones. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“He spoke about how you have to come to these roles again and again. You’re only going to get the surface of it the first time and the next time you can carve a little bit more out of that mountain. These characters come to you in stages because they are bottomless.”

Aldridge, whose acting style was very naturalistic (something new for that time), found success touring the provinces before landing in London. His unprecedented turn as Othello should have been the high point of his career but critics were merciless barely hiding their horror of a black man touching a white woman on stage. The company was forced to close the show. But this is just one chapter in Aldridge’s career as he went on to an accomplished career in Russia, Switzerland and Poland.

“Once race was introduced, ‘Othello’ becomes a political play and that made people at that time uncomfortable,” says director Gary Griffin. “One of the things I admire about the play is that it goes to the core of the debate. It’s in no way a tribute to Ira; it’s a complex exploration of all the challenges he faced.”

Chakrabarti presents Aldridge as very passionate, very headstrong with an immense ego, a trailblazer who was very uncompromising in his nature and not content just playing black roles — he wanted to play King Lear; he wanted to play Macbeth; he wanted to play Shylock.

“Aldridge felt his talent was as great as any other artist and he wasn’t going to be limited to any one idea of who he was,” says Johnstone. “And he was using the stage as a political platform as well to really change the minds of audiences who had limited expectations of what his mental, intellectual and emotional capacities could be as a black man.”

In 2018, Johnstone will take a break from Shakespeare and the stage to play a Hollywood dad in the new Nickelodeon family comedy “Star Falls.”

“It’s great because I play a celebrity actor who has all these films coming out,” Johnstone says. “So they’ve written little bits where I really get to from time to time bring out my Shakespearean side, the theatrical side. So it’s been fun to in a way play off myself.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.

Actors Dion Johnstone (left) and Greg Matthew Anderson rehearse a scene from “Red Velvet,” directed by Gary Griffin at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Friday afternoon, Nov. 17, 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times