Dion Johnstone portrays 1st Black actor to perform ‘Othello’ abroad

Dion Johnstone portrays 1st Black actor to perform 'Othello' abroad
Photo credit: Corey Berry

The backstory: Born in New York City in 1807, Ira Aldridge moves across the Atlantic where he makes his mark as a Shakespearean actor.  In 1833, at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Edmund Kean, the greatest actor of his age, collapses on stage while performing the lead in Othello. He is replaced by a young, Black actor, Ira Aldridge — a first for the role in London’s West End. This comes as a bill in Parliament promoting the abolition of slavery sends shock waves through the streets, how will European audiences react to his performance? Actor Dion Johnstone, as Aldridge, has been delighting audiences with his commanding performance at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet since it opened Dec. 1; a play that is both a learning experience as well as entertaining.

What type of preparation did you have to do to ready yourself for the role of Ira Aldridge?

After reading the play, the first thing I did was go to the library and pull every book I could on Ira Aldridge. One of the best resources I found was a four-volume collection titled Ira Aldridge written by Bernth Lindfors, which chronicles his life and achievements from his birth in 1807 until his death in 1867. I then discovered I needed to understand more about what was happening in New York during his early years and also what was happening in London at the time of his arrival in the early/mid 1820s. The play Red Velvet makes many references to factual people and events, so I made sure to be as familiar as I could with everything mentioned.

Tell us about the title, Red Velvet, and why the Chicago Shakespeare Theater decided to produce it? 

The title Red Velvet comes from a quote in the play written by Lolita Chakrabarti. While being interviewed by a young journalist, Ira attempts to distill the mystery and excitement of theatre. He says there’s “…something about velvet. A deep promise of what’s to come. The sweat of others embedded in the pile. A crushed map of who was here folded in.” I believe Chicago Shakespeare Theater produced this play for several reasons. For one, it’s an exciting piece of theatre, which allows the audience to go behind the scenes of an English acting company at a time when the style of performing was on the verge of change. The play also explores Othello and King Lear, which will be thrilling for those audiences who come to Chicago Shakespeare Theater to see the Bard performed. Red Velvet also features the story of an extraordinary African American actor who, after being faced with limited opportunities to perform in the U.S. due to the harsh realities of slavery, traveled to England and became a European star all the while using his platform on the stage to speak out against slavery and oppression.

There are likely a number of people — African Americans included — who do not know who Ira Aldridge was. How did you learn about him before the production?

To be honest, it still surprises me that I didn’t know about Ira Aldridge before working on this play. Though there isn’t a ton written about his personal life, there are detailed records of his performance history as well as the awards and honors he received during his nine successful tours of Europe. However, he was never taught in school and never brought up at any of the classical theatre companies I’ve worked for. Somehow Ira slipped from the social consciousness of where I came from (I’m Trinidadian Canadian and was raised in Edmonton, Alberta). Perhaps it’s because he left the US at such a young age and never returned and then was shunned from the major theatres in London after his performance of Othello — done in the same year the British Parliament was debating the fate of slavery in the British Empire interestingly — and was met with open racist hostility in the press. Either way, his achievements are significant and from the numerous written accounts of how the audience reacted to his work onstage, his talent was undeniable.

Talk about your professional acting career and how you got started.

I’ve been working professionally for the past 20 years in both theater, film [and] TV. I graduated from the University of Alberta with a BFA in Acting in 1997 and shortly after began guest starring on the hit TV series “Stargate SG-1.” I did nine seasons with the Stratford Festival in Canada where I eventually played the title role in Othello, as well as Caliban in a production of The Tempest, which starred Christopher Plummer. Off-Broadway I played the title role in Coriolanus, which was hailed by The New York Times as a top pick. I’m currently playing Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet for Chicago Shakespeare Theater and have a series leading role on a new Nickelodeon family show called “Star Falls,” which will begin airing early in 2018. 

Do you have a new appreciation for the Bard after this role?

It’s been exciting playing Othello knowing that the version I’m doing in this play marks the first time audiences have seen a Black man play the role opposite a White woman. It makes me very conscious of all of the moments of intimacy and vulnerability between Ira and Ellen Tree — the actress who in history played Desdemona opposite his Othello. The play skillfully puts all eyes on the two of them, whether it’s the cast during their brief rehearsal, the “audience” during their performance, or the actual audience itself — very meta-theatrical. Every touch, sensual or violent, has an intensity and shock value that audiences today don’t feel in the same way anymore.

As an African American artist, do you hope your performance will give Ira Aldridge’s life new meaning for audiences?

I certainly hope that this production will bring Ira to life for people in a way that will make them want to know more about who he was. I would like to see Ira Aldridge take his rightful place in history as a trailblazer who not only carved a path for diversity on the stage but has a legacy of having brought Shakespeare to audiences who weren’t yet aware of its amazing power to touch the depths of the human spirit.

Red Velvet runs through Jan. 21, 2018, at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Courtyard Theater, 800 East Grand Avenue, Navy Pier.

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