Ira Aldridge: Actor and Abolitionist

Happy Black History Month Everyone! Today I’m paying tribute to a great actor and activist, Mr. Ira Aldridge (1807-1867).

Ira Aldridge portrait by James Northcote

Mr Ira Aldridge was not only a great actor but also an influential figure in the abolitionist movement. He rose from the depths of discrimination and dehumanization to become a famous, respected international actor. Furthermore, his life was marked by creating new opportunities for himself and other people of color.

Mr. Aldridge as Othello.

Who Was Ira Aldridge?

Early Life

 True feeling and just expression are not confined to any clime or colour. 

Ira Adridge

Born in New York in 1807, Mr. Aldridge had dreams to found an all-black theater even as a teenager.  His first job was with William Brown’s African Theatre, the first African American theater company. However, discrimination and racism blocked Mr. Aldridge from success in New York, when another theater manager “hired thugs to beat up the actors”. The theatre subsequently burned down and the actors were abused by the New York police. Undaunted, Aldridge decided to take his talents to England, boarding a ship, and arriving in the early 1820s. (Howard, qtd in Thorpe 1). Even though he faced discrimination and violence as a child, Mr. Aldridge would not be deterred. Soon his skill as a Shakespearean actor would soon command respect from all.3.) He refused to be defined by the color of his skin, but by his skill as an actor.

Success In Shakespeare

Ira Aldridge as Aaron in “Titus Andronicus”

In order to become a professional actor, Ira Aldridge boarded a ship to London and became a Shakespearean actor in the early 1820s. He not only became the first black actor to play the role of Othello, he also played other roles such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Gambia in The Slave, and other roles that denounced the evils of slavery:

Aldridge chose to play a lot of anti-slavery roles, including Othello, as well as the standard lead parts in the repertoire,” said Tony Howard, professor of English at Warwick University.

Not only did his performances call attention to the evils of slavery, they also challenged preconceived notions of what black people were capable of. As you can see in this reproduction of Mr. Aldridge’s 1851 tour advertisements, Ira Aldridge chose to bill himself as “The African Roscius,” a reference to an ancient Roman actor. His performances were heralded for his poise and dignity. The Leeds Times highlights “The passions he admirably portrayed in the human breast.”

No sooner did the Moor make his appearance, than I felt myself, I confess it, instantly subjugated, not by the terrible and menacing look of the hero, but by the  naturalness, calm dignity, and by the stamp of power and force that he manifested.

Ira Aldridge

 From 1820 to his death in 1867, Mr. Aldridge toured more than 250 theatres across Britain and Ireland, and more than 225 theatres in Europe. Though he had much more success in Europe, Mr. Aldridge still had to confront prejudices. According to ArtUK.org:

One scathing (and racist) review for The Times claimed that: ‘His figure is unlucky for the stage; he is baker-knee’d and narrow-chested; and owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the fastidious ears of the gallery.’

https://artuk.org/discover/stories/ira-aldridge-a-brief-visual-history-of-the-black-shakespearean-actor

https://witf.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/shak15.ela.lit.racism/casting-othello-why-is-racism-part-of-the-plays-history-shakespeare-uncovered/

Thus, Aldridge’s performances confronted and challenged racist views of whether or not a real black person could play Othello, subtly changing the hearts and minds of the European public, at a time when the question of slavery threatened to rip Europe, (and later the United States) apart.

Abolitionism

Although Aldridge didn’t arrive in Britain with the sole purpose of promoting the abolitionist movement, his impressive skill, charisma and oratory capabilities inevitably swayed public opinion. He became known for directly addressing the audience about the injustices of slavery on the closing night of his play at a given theatre (Source: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/ira-aldridge-a-brief-visual-history-of-the-black-shakespearean-actor )

As I’ve written before, Shakespeare has a complicated relationship with the American Civil War, and ironically, many people in the Civil War were Shakespearean actors. More importantly, England at this time was deeply divided about whether or not to support the Union or the Confederacy. England was embroiled in the cotton trade with America, and thus had an economic incentive to support the South. At the same time, public opinion was very much against slavery at the time, and Aldridge helped keep England’s public within that mindset.

Ira Aldridge cared about abolitionism and making life better for black people, especially actors. Not only did he speak out against slavery onstage, he also helped change hearts and minds in local communities. According to ArtUK, in 1828, Mr. Aldridge was approached by Sir Skears Rew to become the new manager of the Coventry Theater. He was the first black man to manage an English theater. Aldridge became a beloved member of the community of Coventry and may have helped inspire the community to petition Parliament to abolish slavery. Thus, Mr. Aldridge’s success in Europe helped open doors for European black actors and encouraged the abolitionist movement, while his sympathetic portrayals of former slaves and oppressed peoples helped change hearts and minds.

Aldridge’s Influence Today

“Aldridge has always interested black stars, but the wider influence he had is not well known,” said Howard. “Robeson was a great fan of his, and when he came to London to play Othello in 1930 at the Savoy, he put on an exhibition about Aldridge in respect of his memory.”

Vanessa Thorpe: “From 19th-century black pioneer to cultural ambassador of Coventry.” The Guardian, November 12th, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/13/black-theatre-ira-aldridge-coventry-slavery 

For nearly 100 years, actors and devotees of Mr. Aldridge have been inspired by his life. As the quote above indicates, the next great American Shakespearean Paul Robeson helped build his career on Aldridge’s success; being the first black man to play Othello on the American stage, and eventually touring Europe himself as an actor and a distinguished opera singer. Click below to read more about how Aldridge inspired generations of black actors, and his tours helped bring Shakespeare to many previously unknown European countries.

https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/legacy-ira-aldridge/

In modern films and plays, Mr. Aldridge is remembered as a hero, and rightfully so. In the play “Red Velvet,” actor Adrian Lester plays Aldridge and highlights his struggles and successful contributions to the theatre. He was not only a great actor but a dignified and courageous champion of the rights of all people. I’m proud to conclude my black history month posts with this review of the life and career of a man who inspires all Shakespeareans and turned his profession into a powerful call for change.

Sources:

Stratford-upon-Avon’s first Black Othellos

https://www.folger.edu/blogs/shakespeare-and-beyond/ira-aldridge/

https://www.chicagoshakes.com/education/teaching_resources/teacher_handbooks/red_velvet/ira_aldridge

https://artuk.org/discover/stories/ira-aldridge-a-brief-visual-history-of-the-black-shakespearean-actor

One thought on “Ira Aldridge: Actor and Abolitionist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s