BROOKLYN (Workers World Today) – Today, 24 July 2018, commemorates the 211th birthday of Ira Aldridge, an African-American Shakespearean actor who denounced slavery and supported abolitionism through theater.
Aldridge, who was born in the early 1800s to free blacks in New York City began his career as an actor with the African Grove Company, one of the earliest African-American theaters in lower Manhattan. The theater was started by two ship stewards and catered largely to black audiences.
Reports show that Aldridge played Romeo in the theater’s adaptation of the Shakespearean drama Romeo and Juliet. He later played in Hamlet. As a black actor, Aldridge faced discrimination in the U.S, thus he decided to move more than 3,900 miles overseas to Europe in hopes of overcoming these obstacles.
As a struggling international actor, Aldridge first worked as a valet. In 1825, Aldridge secured a starring role in The Revolt of Surinam, a slave’s revenge in the Coburg Theatre. Aldridge continued to work across Europe and gained re-occurring roles in Othello, Macbeth, and Richard the III. A journey toward a successful career wasn’t easy for Aldridge.
Tony Howard, an English professor at the University of Warwick in England told Public Radio International last August that the press of the 19th century was increasingly critical of his race.
Most newspapers dehumanized Aldridge, one reviewer reportedly wrote “we have seen performing horses, we’ve seen performing dogs. Now, this.” In addition, a reviewer from The Times noted, “Owing to the shape of his lips, it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English in such a manner as to satisfy even the unfastidious ears of the gallery.”
Despite backlash and racism from critics, Aldridge continued to play Shakespearean roles that were expected to be played by white actors. While Aldridge gained widespread fame in Europe, he died on August 7, 1967. After his death, several traveling acting troupes were named in his honor. Today, Aldridge is still one of the only black actors to receive a bronze plaque at the Shakespearean Memorial Theater.
Tatyana Bellamy Walker is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the NY Amsterdam News, DNAinfo.com and The Daily Beast.