Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Black History Tribute: Ira Aldridge (First African American Shakespearean Actor)

Ira Aldridge as Othello, 1830 by Henry Perronet Briggs

In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to talk about the life of Ira Aldridge, the first African American Shakespearean actor.  Just this past weekend, Saturday, February, 18th, 2012, I was given the job to video tape a One-Act Play called Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, written by Jacqueline E. Lawton.  The play was part of The 23rd Annual Savannah Black Heritage Festival and was featuring Avery Brooks (Ira Aldridge) and Jewell Robinson (Amanda Ira Aldridge, his daughter).  
It was held at Armstrong Atlantic State University's Fine Arts Auditorium.  It was an interesting play, and it inspired me to pay tribute to this extraordinary man of the theater.
It is an understatement when I say that he has paved the way for all of the African American or minority actors after him.  Back in the nineteenth century, it was illegal for Blacks to act in the theater with White people.  In order for Aldridge to be an actor, he had to go to London.  As we will learn later, he would have to struggle to play characters other than a slave or a trickster.

Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge in July 24, 1805.  He attended the African Free School in New York City around 1818.  His first experience in theater was watching plays in the high balcony of the Park Theatre, which was New York's leading theater during this time.  In the early 1820s, he started acting with a company associated with the African Grove, an African-American theatre.  His first role was Rolla in Pizzaro.  He went on to play Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and was best noted for his role as Hamlet.

Of course, during this time, Blacks were heavily discriminated against in the United States.  Because of this, Aldridge decided to go to England.  His first job was as a dresser for the British actor Henry Wallack.  Aldridge associated himself with the African Theater in New York, because it was known by the English people because of Charles Mathews, the British actor and comedian who developed table entertainments by watching James Hewlett perform at the African Theater.    

 These table entertainments were one-man shows in which he played a variety of satirical, black-faced characters.  According to Bernth Lindfors, when Aldridge appeared on the stage at the Royalty Theatre, he was called "a gentleman of color".  When he moved to the Royal Coburg, the playbill spelled out, "the American Tragedian from the African Theater New York City."  Because of Hewlett's portrayal of the Black man (in black-face), the audience assumed that they were coming to see the actor that Hewlett had been making fun of from the African Theater.  They were expecting to come and laugh.  To their surprise, they had come to see a talented actor, who played Othello like that had never seen.  A critic wrote about Aldridge that he, "delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder."  

By 1825, he had top billing at the Coburg Theatre, playing many major roles, especially Shakespearean characters. Later, in the 1830s, he performed in northern and southern Ireland.  Some praised him for his Othello, while many criticized him for taking liberty with the lines and for just being black.  The Times called him the "African Roscius".  Roscius was a famous, Roman actor.  Aldridge used this is his advantage, using it and other African references in his biography in playbills.

Aldridge died in 1867 while performing in Poland.  He was the only African-American actor among the 33 actors of the English stage who was honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Statford-upon-Avon.  He also received top honors from heads of state in Prussia and Russia.

We could learn a great deal from Ira Aldridge's life.  He never let his race or anyone's opinion of him stop him from reaching his goals.  He was determined to be the best actor, and he succeeded.  What are the obstacles that are standing before us, that are keeping us from achieving our goals?  We have to take a stand in order to be the best in our field.  The true question is what or who is your obstacle?  For most of us, it's ourselves.  Once you have identified your obstacle, you can then, strategise on how to either eliminate it or get around it.

Please click here for questions and comments.