Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) was an African-American actor who made a successful career as a theatre artist in England and Europe despite often encountering prejudice. Aldridge’s autographs, playbills announcing his performances, and images of him in costume for his famous roles circulated widely. Today, portraits of Aldridge hang in major galleries but his work as a trailblazing actor of color has been largely forgotten. This exhibit—created by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in conjunction with our production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s award-winning play Red Velvet—brings together over twenty reproductions of paintings, drawings, photographs, playbills, autographs, and letters spanning Ira Aldridge’s life and career, showcasing the depth and breadth of his contributions to the popular theatre of his day.
Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in 1807. Most scholars today give his birthplace as New York City, but a few early biographies state that he was born in Bel Air, Maryland. He attended the African Free School in New York City, a school founded by the abolitionist New York Manumission Society to educate the children of slaves and free persons of color. (Slavery would not be fully abolished in New York until 1827.)
Ira’s father Daniel, a free man, sold goods from a street cart and was a preacher. Little is known about his mother, Luranah. Apparently Daniel Aldridge wished for his son to pursue a religious calling, but instead the teenager began performing with the all-black African Company, today regarded as the first known African-American theatre troupe. Aldridge learned the craft of acting from the theatre’s founder, William Henry Brown, and its principal actor, James Hewlett. The company performed from its founder’s home and, later, a two-story house with a tea garden they named the African Grove Theatre, near what is today Greenwich Village. They presented Shakespeare’s classics as well as their own works. Whenever possible, young Ira also attended plays at New York’s Park Theatre where—from the seating in the balcony designated for people of color—he at times saw touring British actors perform.
The 300-seat African Grove largely served Black audiences; as it grew in popularity, however, it also attracted white patrons who were permitted to view performances from the back of the theatre. The theatre endured frequent harassment and interruptions by white hooligans and by police opposed to such public gatherings. In the decades before the Civil War, most in the white mainstream viewed the notion of African-Americans performing Shakespeare as either a novelty or an affront to the status quo. However, many African-American leaders of the day expressed a sense of pride about the accomplishments of men and women of color involved in the fine and literary arts. The African Grove Theatre was shut down in 1823 (and, by many reports, burned down) after it mounted a production of Richard III in direct competition with a production at the Park Theatre.
Aldridge’s parents sent him to Schenectady College in New York with the hope that he would study to be a minister, but his heart remained in theatre. A British actor, James Wallack, encouraged him to seek his fortune in Europe. Landing in Scotland, Aldridge briefly attended the University of Glasgow, but left school to find work with small and itinerant troupes in the British provinces. In 1828, he so impressed audiences and colleagues in the town of Coventry, England, that he became the manager of a theatre there. In 1833, his big professional break came on a major London stage: The legendary British actor Edmund Kean had collapsed while playing the role of Shakespeare’s Othello at one of the city’s most prestigious theatres, the Theatre Royal Covent Garden. The theatre’s manager, Pierre Laporte, a Frenchman who was known for introducing London audiences to some of the world’s top musicians and actors, engaged Aldridge to replace Kean in Othello and to perform leading roles in other popular plays. No prominent theatre in London had ever before cast a man of color in a leading role; prior to this, Shakespeare’s tragic Moor had always been played by white actors wearing blackface makeup.
Aldridge broke the color barrier in London amid a swirl of tensions on stage and off, as the 1833 performance occurred against the backdrop of the government and citizens debating the abolition of slavery in Britain’s colonies. After two performances, the theatre closed the play and dismissed Aldridge. Aldridge persisted in his profession and in time made headlines across the Continent. He toured Ireland, Scotland, Russia, Poland, and other countries. He performed for royalty and received awards from them. His repertoire included Shakespeare’s great leading roles—Othello, Macbeth, Lear, and Shylock. He was also known for making a direct address advocating the abolition of slavery in the British colonies on the final night of some of his engagements. A German newspaper reported that Aldridge donated money to American abolition causes, once helping to buy the freedom of a family from Baltimore.
Aldridge died in Poland while on tour in 1867. Although he had begun planning a theatrical tour to America following the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States, he never returned to his native country.
Despite his prominence 150 years ago, Aldridge has largely been a “hidden figure” of American theatre history. Several African-American playwrights, directors, and actors have presented homages to him over the years, including Ossie Davis, Charles Dutton, and Ted Lange. The 2012 play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti, a British actress of Indian descent, has helped revive interest in Aldridge’s career.
In 2017 institutions in England and Poland commemorated the 150th anniversary of Aldridge’s death, and officials in Coventry, England, installed a marker on the site of the theatre he directed there. He is also the only African-American actor to have a memorial plaque in his name installed in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. African-American leaders including W.E.B. DuBois helped raise funds for it in African-American and Caribbean communities.