James Northcote, Manchester Art Gallery: “Description Half length frontal portrait of Ira Aldridge, celebrated nineteenth century black actor, in the role of Othello. He is dressed in a white shirt, with a white lace necker-chief, he looks nervously to the left. Plain background.” 1826. This image is in the pubic domain. [https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AIra_AldridgebyNorthcote.jpg, accessed 25 March 2017]
Today we tip our hats to 19th-century Black actor, Ira Aldridge, whose career spanned two continents, won some of the most coveted leading male roles in the English-language literary canon, engendered praise (both earnest and patronising) and criticism (unequivocally racist) and provided a platform from which Aldridge publicly supported abolition. Aldridge may be generally unknown, but his life and career negotiated the oppressive white gaze trained upon him as Black man on and off the stage.
Aldridge was born in present-day NYC in 1807. He received an education at Manhattan’s African Free School (for free Black children), where his gift for oratory was recognised. His father, a minister, wished Ira to apply the gift to ministry. But Ira Aldridge’s lifelong vocation would be acting.
From the 1816 to 1824, Aldridge honed his craft, but racist casting discrimination limited his opportunities; he worked mainly backstage, though he also did land roles with the African Company, a Black-founded and Black-managed company that, in 1821, became “the first resident African American theatre in the United States.” (1)
In 1824, Aldridge moved to Liverpool, hoping for greater opportunities. Unsurprisingly, he worked in Black companies and/or was often cast in racialised roles (e.g., his debut role in England in 1825, Oroonoko, the lead in The Revolt of Surinam, or a Slave’s Revenge). But Aldridge’s many leading roles (and not all racialised ones, like Othello, but also King Lear, for which he donned white face) attest to his range and the space he claimed for himself.
Aldridge did not allow himself to be made a hack for theatres cashing in on racialised spectacles; he was dedicated to his craft, and also made the stage a platform for the abolitionist message to which he was devoted. He often reappeared on stage with his guitar after finishing performances to play abolitionist-songs, and eventually became known for his post-performance, closing-night addresses, during which he attacked the abominable, unjust institution of slavery. He also donated considerable funds of his own to abolitionist causes. Thus, he expanded his racialised and constricted position into a space not just for himself as a Black man, but also for abolition. Through his donations he redirected English theatre-goers’ funds to the movement.
Aldridge challenged the restrictions that racist social and theatrical conventions placed upon him. When he couldn’t get satisfying work in the U.S., he moved to England, where he was not just an urban curiosity of Liverpool and London. He toured the provinces for years, and later branched out to continental Eurasia, where his performances were well-received by audiences across nations. His career demonstrates the wrongness of the general assumption that England was completely white before the 20th century, or that those Black people in England before that time were wholly segregated. After leaving the U.S., Aldridge married an English woman, and when she predeceased him, he remarried his Swedish mistress, with whom he would have several children.
Considering Aldridge’s career opens up an avenue for us to recall the long history that Black people have in Britain, both on and off the stage. Successful as he was, Aldridge in another sense was simply another in a succession of Black actors in England going back at least to the time of Shakespeare. (2)
- Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, African American Dramatists: An A-to-Z Guide (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004).
‘Black Faces in Tudor England – The Scholemaster’, https://andrewbretz.wordpress.com/2016/02/21/black-faces-in-tudor-england/, accessed 25 March 2017; ‘Britain’s First Black Community in Elizabethan London’, BBC News, 20 July 2012, sec. Magazine, http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18903391, accessed 25 March 2017.
*This entire piece is inspired by the articles in footnote 2.