As a continuation of our series honoring the history of Black artists and theater-makers, this post is dedicated to the work of Ira Aldridge.
Ira Aldridge was a formidable American- and later, British- actor and playwright in the 19th century. He is most famous for his Shakespearean roles, and he is the only actor of Black descent among the thirty-three actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the globally renowned Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
As a teenager in the early 1820s, Ira Aldridge got his start performing with the African Company, the first known all-Black theater company in the US. The group performed at the African Grove Theater in NYC, and specialized in both performances of Shakespeare and new work. Aldridge learned his craft there, and played Romeo in the Grove’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Unfortunately, in 1823, when Aldridge was 16, the African Grove was forced to shut down. Its popular productions of the classics were seen as a threat to the all white companies performing Shakespeare elsewhere in the city.
Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for a black actor in the US, Aldridge traveled to the UK in search of more options. Once there, he began performing in London and in smaller towns and cities across Britain. While his career progressed further than it would have had he stayed in New York, Ira still faced frustrating obstacles. Black actors had been the subject of racist caricatures on the London stage, and blackface minstrelsy had made it across the Atlantic (Thomas Rice toured England with his blackface “Jim Crow” act in the 1830s). Many audiences were ready for Aldridge to fail.
However, thanks to his persistence and talent, Aldridge’s reputation grew. He became a master at forcing audiences into a kind of cognitive dissonance through performing double bills that featured both tragic and comic plays. Audiences were confronted with the dignity and humanity of his heroic characters, followed by the racist, stereotypical characters that Aldridge would play in the comedies that followed. Aldridge made it clear that, although he might sometimes play the illiterate, foolish characters from popular minstrel acts, it was a performance and not his identity. Aldridge would also use his platform to advocate for changing laws, not just minds: he supported the abolition movement in Britain, speaking directly to his audience about the evils of slavery at the end of some of his shows.
His big break came in 1833, nine years after he moved to the UK. One of the most famous actors of the day, Edmund Kean, collapsed in the middle of a production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. There were still more performances in the run, so Ira Aldridge was asked to step in and play Othello for the rest of the run. This was the first time that a major London theater had cast an actor of color in a lead role (although Aldridge had played Othello before, in smaller productions). The abolitionist movement in England was then at its height: slavery would be abolished in most of Britain’s colonies that same year. None of this shielded Aldridge from significant racist backlash. Some audiences and critics refused to accept the idea of a Black actor replacing a white one in one of Shakepeare’s greatest roles, especially a role in which he was supposed to be intimate with the white actress who played Desdemona. (The irony of objecting to this, given the plot and themes of Othello, was apparently lost on them.) The production closed after only two performances with Aldridge in the role, and many newspapers made it clear that they saw it as their duty to “drive him from the stage.”
Despite this setback, Aldridge continued acting, and once again decided to travel in order to find places that would appreciate his talent. He toured the provinces, and eventually decided to go on a European tour in 1852. Once again, he left a country he called home in search of better opportunities. This time, his gamble paid off in a big way: he rocketed to international stardom. He was hugely popular across Europe, particularly in Germany, Poland, and Russia. He received awards and titles from European royalty, and glowing reviews from critics. As his career developed, he wasn’t only asked to play traditionally Black characters like Othello: his Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear were also well received. He spent much of his remaining career on tour in Europe, and in 1867 began to plan an American tour: the Civil War had ended two years earlier, and he felt that the time was right for a triumphant return to his home country. Unfortunately (and, for all his success, there are so many “unfortunately’s” in Aldridge’s story) he never made it back home to see what new opportunities a post-Civil War America had to offer. Aldridge died in Poland just weeks before he was due to sail to the US.
In one sense, Shakespeare’s plays shaped Aldridge’s career, and created opportunities for his talent to shine. Although he was fantastic in both comic and tragic roles, frequently performed in contemporary plays, and occasionally wrote plays himself, he was best known for playing the leads in Shakespeare’s famous tragedies. In that respect, his career was not dissimilar from those of the white stars of the period: whatever else their accomplishments might be, they were most famous for their interpretations of “the Bard’s” greatest roles. However, Ayanna Thompson, scholar and president of the Shakespeare Association of America, argues for a less simplistic analysis:
“Aldridge’s story does not fit easily within the familiar refrain that Shakespeare is for everyone. Aldridge’s story, in fact, forces us to confront the fact that while we may want Shakespeare to be for everyone, all too often Shakespeare has been used as a gatekeeper; that is, a barrier used to exclude and subjugate people of color.”
Waterwell’s sophomores study Shakespeare’s works in the classroom and beyond: they learn to analyze and perform Shakespeare’s verse in their Voice and Acting classes, and study Shakespeare and his historical context in their Theater History class. They also learn about Ira Aldridge, and discuss the many ways in which Shakespeare’s works have been used for both oppression and liberation. Most importantly, they are given opportunities to develop their own relationships to Shakespeare, as Aldridge did. They learn about adaptation: how and why people from various cultures throughout history have turned to Shakespeare’s plays and used them to create something that speaks to their own community, in their own moment. They can participate in that process through their rehearsal project: this year, the sophomore’s performed Romeo & Juliet and Antony & Cleopatra. In the best traditions of Shakespearean adaptation, these two productions spoke to both their artists’ appreciation of the original texts and the concerns of the modern community that the production was meant for. Designed to be zoom performances, both shows explored our need for love and intimacy, and the obstacles we face in pursuit of them.
Online Exhibit about Aldridge, created by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company
If you click the “Exhibit” tab on this website, it takes you to a great collection of images of Ira (paintings and photos)
“Reflection on Ira Aldridge, Shakespeare and Race” by scholar Ayanna Thompson
“Othello’s Daughter: The rich legacy of Ira Aldridge, the pioneering black Shakespearean” by Alex Ross, The New Yorker
Two plays about Aldridge:
Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti
Black Othello by Cecilia Sidenbladh (a Swedish play about Aldridge’s time performing in Stockholm)
Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius by Bernth Lindfors
Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian by Herbert Marshall & Midred Stock