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July 08, 2018

Ira Aldridge, 2017: The Countown continued

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.


October 15, 2013

Guest Blog

IRA ALDRIDGE’S EARRINGS

by

Patricia Cumper

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.

Patricia Cumper

11th October 2013

Patricia Cumper is a playwrightand producerand was Artistic Director and CEO of Talawa Theatre Company from 2006-2012.


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