Who was Ira Aldridge?

Posted on 3 November 2016

The Belgrade are proud to be presenting Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828. But who was Ira Aldridge and why is he so important? And why is an African American man so important to the history of British stage and to Coventry? Here is the story of the actor who was described by The Times as the ‘African Roscius’ after legendary Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus and who changed the face of British theatre.

When and where was Ira Aldridge born?

Ira Frederick Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge July 24, 1805. Born whilst slavery was still practiced within the USA and the British Empire, he went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free black people and slaves. Whilst still young, he viewed theatre from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York’s leading theater of the time, and saw productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the African Grove Theatre.

What is Ira Aldridge famous for?

A stage actor and playwright, Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello. His first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Company, in the USA. In 1821, the group built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.

With prejudice against black actors rife in the USA, Aldridge immigrated to Liverpool in the UK in 1824. His UK acting debut was at the Coburg Theatre, London, in Oronooko: The Revolt of Surinam. Not well received in London, he toured the country, returning to play Othello in the capital in 1826.

What were the responses to him on stage?

Because of racism at the time, there was a lot of focus on Aldridge’s appearance (he was described as ‘A Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour’), and some initial reviews of his performances were negative. One campaigner called his Othello a ‘heinous offence’ and threatened him with ‘damnation’. However critics were particularly taken with his performance. One critic wrote, “In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder.”

What is Ira Aldridge’s Coventry connection?

Ira Aldridge ran Coventry Theatre for a season in 1828, highlighting how diversity has been a part of our city’s history for hundreds of years. He is the first recorded non-white theatre manager in Britain. You can learn more about this at our event, Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828.

Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828 will take place at 7pm on Thurs 17 November. Tickets are free and must be booked in advance online or through the Belgrade Theatre’s box office.

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