Whenever Hollywood or Broadway dips into Black culture with their interpretations, we should automatically be concerned. The films “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” prompted widespread response and the debate continues.
Meanwhile, Broadway has a number of productions up and running where the Black experience is doing much to boost ticket sales and stimulate discussion about the accuracy and depiction of such icons as Billie Holiday and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Another is “Red Velvet,” a biographical treatment of the great thespian Ira Aldridge, which is currently at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and was scheduled to end Easter Sunday.
Find out more: There are a number of websites that provide solid, fact-filled information about Aldridge, including Find a Grave, maintained by Curtis Jackson, which, though I recommend it, should be read carefully. Go to www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin.
Discussion: Aldridge’s inability to get any theatrical opportunities in his homeland was nothing unusual for Black Americans attempting to break down the barriers of racism, no matter what the profession or field. To what extent do you believe institutional racism still exists and how do we challenge it?
Place in context: When Aldridge was active on the stage, it was before the Civil War. He might have fared better if he had come along after the war, but is that true? An examination of the theater at the dawn of the 20th century is proof enough of the difficulty experienced by Black playwrights, producers, directors and certainly the actors and actresses and all the other people involved in the theater.
Whether the drama makes it to Broadway remains to be seen, but in the meantime, here’s Classroom’s profile of the phenomenally gifted actor.
The expanse of Aldridge’s life, from his birth and coming of age in New York City to his studying in Scotland and being buried in Poland, is indicative of the man’s artistic and geographical reach. Born on July 24, 1807, around the time the international slave trade was drawing to a close—at least de jure—Aldridge was a product of a poor but free working-class family who was fortunate enough to be educated at the African Free School, a system devised by Black activists and abolitionists in the 18th century. That institution would be the template for the general development of the city’s public school system and widely emulated across the nation.
After the death of his mother, the precocious Aldridge, then 11, ran away from home, perhaps not satisfied with his father’s remarriage. Whatever the case, as a teenager he went to sea, and after an encounter in North Carolina when the captain of the ship on which he worked refused an offer to sell him to a slaveholder, Aldridge realized he was at risk and returned to New York City. He was soon involved in the theater.
His arrival to the stage was a slow but steady process that began with his working backstage and watching various productions, practically learning what happened up front from his view in the back.
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.