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Famous abroad, unknown in America, the actor Ira Aldridge

Herb Boyd | 4/24/2014, 11:30 a.m.
Ira Aldridge

But it wasn’t long before he had seen enough to gain a part and make his debut in a little known play, “Pizzaro.” A sparkling debut, however, did not translate immediately into a flood of other parts. In fact, there was an almost opposite reaction, his race acting as a barrier.

To hurdle that obstacle, Aldridge went to sea again, this time to Europe with the purpose—and the hope—of obtaining parts he did not find in the U.S. Within a year of arriving in London in 1824, still a teenager, Aldridge debuted as the first Black actor at the Old Vic Theater, where he portrayed the role of a prince sold into slavery. The play, “Prince Oroonoko,” closely resembles one of the most anthologized slave narratives written by Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa), though it has aspects of Solomon Northup’s turbulent odyssey that was the basis for “12 Years a Slave.”

Aldridge was overwhelmingly impressive in his performance if one prestigious publication is believed, while another dismissed him and weighed in stereotypically, making the charge that his lips were much too thick to pronounce properly the “King’s English.”

If conquering the critics and the producers of London was daunting, Aldridge was not discouraged. He took his acting on the road to various other locations in Europe, performing a variety of roles from comedy to heavy Shakespearean drama. And it was his remarkable performance in Shakespeare’s “Othello” that finally earned him the acclaim he deserved. Even so, the racism didn’t cease, but at least there were opportunities outside of London.

But, at last, the praise became so mountainous that even the London theater and its naysayers had to surrender to his genius, and by 1858, the 51-year-old actor, now with a family, was knighted by the British government and saluted for his outstanding portrayals of King Lear, Shylock and Macbeth. What really stood him apart was his role as Othello, for unlike the other roles, he didn’t have to resort to makeup.

This Week in Black History

April 20, 1982: Opera diva Leontyne Price opens the annual Daughters of the American Revolution Convention with a song. She was perhaps there as a gesture of redeeming the group’s past racism, as it previously denied the appearance of Marian Anderson.

April 21, 1974: Golfer Lee Elder, after winning the Monsanto Open, becomes the first African-American eligible to participate in a Masters golf championship.

April 23, 1913: The National Urban League is launched by a group of sociologists, including George Hayes, after it was conceived in 1910 and incorporated on this date.

It’s hard to say the extent to which the plays helped to politicize Aldridge, but on more than one occasion, after a scintillating performance, he would return to the stage after the bows with his guitar and serenade the captive audience with anti-slavery songs, entreating listeners to be more respectful of his race and culture. Clearly, this was deeply appreciated by an increasingly large and powerful abolitionist community in London and elsewhere, particularly in Russia where, like his future successor Paul Robeson, he would be viewed as an international hero.

Despite his celebrity abroad, there are no indications that Aldridge ever performed in the states, which should not come as a surprise given the racism in America then and now. Without appearances in America, he continued to amass fame and fortune all over Europe, and from 1861 to 1866, he conducted an exhausting tour that must have had some effect on his health.

A year later, in 1867, at 59, while on tour in Lodz, Poland, Aldridge died, and the Polish government, so grateful for his career, honored him with a state funeral and created a monument to his memory. A similar gesture of gratitude, and possibly apology, was extended by the British, resulting in Aldridge’s name being inscribed at the Shakespearean Theater Memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

Like brave African-American soldiers during World War I—particularly those known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who were given the highest awards for gallantry on the battlefield by the French government—Aldridge received his final tribute from a land thousands of miles from the home of his birth.