Reviewing Ira Aldridge

Red Velvet and Revisionist Narrative


  • Lauren Eriks Cline Hampden-Sydney College


This essay argues that formal techniques of "revision" have been central to representing the significance of Ira Aldridge's blackness. I take the acts of repeat observation and anachronism in Lolita Chakrabarti's biopic play Red Velvet as cues for examining how revision makes racial meaning. Putting the play's treatment of Aldridge and Othello in conversation with a wider network of theater writing — including newspaper and memoir accounts of Aldridge's Othellos in 1833 and 1865, critical responses to Red Velvet in 2012 and 2017, and Shakespeare performance histories — I analyze the techniques of what I call "revisionist narratives" of black Shakespeare performance. I use the word "revisionist" not as a historical judgment but a conceptual index to how this kind of spectator narrative works: (1) as a revision, it is not just about what is seen by observers but what is seen again and seen at a different angle; (2) as a revisionist narrative about past events, it uses its retrospective position to structure temporalities of anticipation and anachronism. In the essay's coda, I explore how such revisionist narratives might be repurposed for anti-racist work.

Author Biography

Lauren Eriks Cline, Hampden-Sydney College

Lauren Eriks Cline is Assistant Professor of English at Hampden-Sydney College. Her research on spectatorship, narrative, and performance has appeared in a number of journals and collections, including Theatre Survey, Victorian Literature & Culture, and The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment.