Ira Aldridge: Written Out of History
‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history, it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.’
(Adrian Lester, who played Ira Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet)
On the 150th anniversary of his death, the Multicultural Shakespeare Project, Shakespeare’s Globe and Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre joined forces to help celebrate the life of pioneering black actor, Ira Aldridge.
How much do we know about the man noted for being the first black actor to play Othello? Until recently, not a great deal. In fact Professor Tony Howard of the University of Warwick notes, ‘his tragedy was that so soon after his death he was written out of history; his triumph is that all over the world he is being written back in now, with a vengeance.’
New discoveries by scholars and biographers such as Bernth Lindfors and Martin Hoyles coupled with creative projects such as the America tour of Red Velvet and Tony Howard’s Against Prejudice have brought Ira’s story to life again in this significant year.
Ira was born in July 1807 in New York and sailed for Britain in 1825 to escape racism. Soon after his arrival he scored his first theatrical successes in the ‘minor’ Royalty and Royal Coburg Theatres in South London.
Between 1826-27 he toured English regional theatres with great success, commenting in 1828 that, ‘he might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, he had little claim to public notice – did he not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’
In the spring of 1828, spurred on by this success (though, astonishingly, at a time when Britain’s colonies and thousands of British investors still depended on slavery) he became the manager of the Coventry Theatre (Theatre Royal) at the modest age of 20. In his short but successful season at the theatre he used melodrama, music and Shakespeare to challenge racist stereotypes.
During the years after Ira’s time in Coventry he toured Britain as a successful actor with a strong Shakespearean repertoire. He also performed songs and poems, like the anti-slavery poem written for him by Warwickshire author James Bisset. This poem, which makes an explicit link between slavery and the new British industries that manufactured the everyday machinery of slavery, has been mentioned in biographies for decades but has never surfaced until now. We are delighted that it will be performed as part of the Against Prejudice event.
Despite vicious attacks from the press when he performed at Covent Garden Theatre, Ira continued his national tour and extended his reach internationally between 1852 and 1867. Considering the significance of this time in Ira’s life, Adrian Lester comments, ‘he took a horse and carriage to tour places that the railroad hadn’t been built to reach yet, being lauded and allowed to play anywhere but at home’.
Ira’s final accolade was to be the first ever British actor to be knighted. In August 1867, at a time when he was about to return to the USA after Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Ira died in Łódź, Poland, at the age of 60.
Shakespeare's Gobe comments: 'It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour a man about whom Tony Howard notes, ‘Artists and audiences have responded passionately to the story of his life and his struggles to be heard.’ Reflecting on his work on the project, he adds, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked, ‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’
Against Prejudice: A celebration of Ira Aldridge in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse - Tuesday September 19 2017 at 7.00pm. The evening featured a staged reading of Professor Tony Howard’s drama-documentary about Ira’s life as a theatre manager, a panel discussion led by historian David Olusoga about his legacy and a performance from vocalist Una May and Coventry Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre. The evening also featured three leading actors who have played Ira in biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph Mydell
GUEST OF HONOUR: Earl Cameron, days after his 100th birthday. Mr. Cameron was voice-trained by Amanda, Ira Aldridge's daughter.