Ira Alridge: 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 are joining 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.
It is a privilege for Shakespeare’s Globe to be hosting Against Prejudice this season, to honour
a man about whom Professor 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 notes, ‘time and time again I’ve been asked,
‘Why did nobody tell me this before?’
Against Prejudice: A
celebration of Ira Aldridge is in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on
Tuesday September 19 at 7.00pm. The evening features 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 features three leading actors who have played Ira in
biographical plays and films about him: Ray Fearon, Joseph Marcell and Joseph