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August 12, 2016

Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828

The countdown's beginning.


On November 17 this year, amateur and professional performers will join forces to commemorate the extraordinary fact that in 1828, when slavery still held sway in Britain's colonies, the African American actor Ira Aldridge became Manager of the Coventry Theatre.

He was not yet 21.

Ira Aldridge has moved in and out of obscurity since the day he arrived in England and became the first black actor to play Othello.

In 1930 Paul Robeson honoured Aldridge's memory when he played the part in London, worked with Ira's daughter, and even planned to play his great predecessor on film.

It never happened, and though many books have told the story of Aldridge's life since then - most notably the wonderful three-volume biography by Bernth Lindfors - and even though several plays have presented moments from his unique career - did you see Adeian Lester's perdormance in London or New York? - every time the breakthrough has been met by the same response: 'Ira who?'

In November, as part of the Being Human festival, Coventry's stages and Coventry's streets will honour one of the most astonishing episodes in that astonishing life - when the one-time mayor of Coventry handed the theatre he had created to a 20 year-old American actor.

Who was young and gifted and black.

Come back to this blog during the summer and early autumn as we - BBAS, the Belgrade and Warwick Arts Centre - begin to work on a drama-documentary account. We'll ask: How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what did Aldridge do?

In the shadow of Brexit we need to know that in an open letter to the people of Coventry Ira Aldridge stated his credo, his belief - that 'being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.'

Tony Howard


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