IRA ALDRIDGE’S EARRINGS
Part way through his address about the exhibition on Black and Asian Shakespearean performances called ‘To Tell My Story’ currently on display at Lambeth Library, Professor Tony Howard told his audience the story of Ira Aldridge’s daughter giving the earrings her father had worn during his acclaimed performances of Othello to Paul Robeson as he was about to play the same part. The story felt significant for two reasons: firstly, that it meant Black actors had been documented successfully playing Shakespearean roles in Britain since the 19th century; secondly, that it was an item of costume that indicated the exoticism of the role of Othello and so to symbolise something of the essential tension in the relationship between Shakespeare and Black and Asian actors today.
The exhibition is interesting. It starts in the 19th century and documents through some eight panels the highlights of Black and Asian Shakespearean performances in mainstream British theatre to the present day. Initially, it tells the tale of American Black performers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Then it goes on to document the resistance to, and eventual inclusion of, British Black and Asian performers in a wide range of roles as waves of immigration swept by the tides of world history changed the composition of Britain’s population.
‘Here the sable African is free‘ Ira Aldridge declared in an ex tempo address to an adoring audience. The stage was his home, the play text his weapon of choice. Aldridge, like Robeson after him and many other actors since, understood the politics of performance, that the direct conversation between performer and audience can be tremendously powerful, the universal humanity of Shakespeare’s play an unshakeable platform for messages of equality and creative expression.
The display, and Professor Howard address, pointed out a number of firsts : Edric Connor as Gower in Pericles, the first ‘coloured’ actor to perform at the Royal Shakespeare Company; Cy Grant’s appearance as Othello opposite a young Judy Dench in scenes from Othello broadcast on ITV; the scandal in 1979 when the BBC wanted to bring in James Earl Jones to play Othello; Norman Beaton’s role in Measure for Measure; Talawa Theatre Company’s 1986 production; Tara Arts who described their Shakespeare as ‘the empire striking back’.
After the main address, actors Nicholas Bailey and Karen Bryson, who have both played Shakespearean roles, talked about when Shakespeare became a part of their lives and how they came to love his plays and were eager to do more. Professor Howard described the point of the BBA Shakespeare Project as ‘to celebrate achievements’. When the discussion was opened out to the audience, it was apparent that there were deep and abiding questions that the exhibition raised that begged discussion and perhaps deeper enquiry, including:
Why did it feel as if there fewer opportunities for Black and Asian actors to play Shakespearean roles today than there were a decade ago? Has theatre become complacent about using Black and Asian actors because it has already happened? What roles are there for Black British actors who were unwilling to play servants? Must actors wait on a director’s or producer’s artistic vision for a play before they can be looked at for roles? If colour blind casting is the right way to go, what right has anyone to object to a white actor playing Othello? Aren’t all minorities including gay and Jewish characters underrepresented or stereotyped in Shakespeare? If theatre is make believe, who can’t any actor play any part? The discussion in response to all these concerns was - needless to say - lively.
Shakespeare’s words are my story, Karen Bryson stated at the end of the evening’s presentation; the journeys of his characters are my journey. With these words, she summed up the dynamic relationship between actor and playwright, performer and audience. Conversations continued to hum in the atrium of Lambeth Library for a good while after the presentation ended. Shakespeare, whether you like or loathe his work, cannot be ignored.
11th October 2013