Who Was the 1st Black Othello?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: A new play tells the story of a pioneer of Shakespearean drama.

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William Mulready.Othello.1840-63.Baltimore%2cWalters Art Museum

Ira Aldridge

William Mulready, between 1840 and 1863, Walters Art Museum

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 73: Who was the first black actor to play the role of Shakespeare’s tortured Moor?

While theatergoers are buzzing over Denzel Washington’s return to Broadway in the role Sidney Poitier originated in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun, it is another play, at St. Ann’s Theater in Brooklyn, N.Y. (now through April 20), that introduces us to the godfather of black stage actors: Ira Aldridge, the self-proclaimed “African Roscius” of the 19th century. Alluringly titled Red Velvet, the play, by writer Lolita Chakrabarti and director Indhu Rubasingham, had its world premier at the Tricycle Theatre in London in 2012. On both sides of the Pond, the part of Aldridge has been played by the gifted black Brit Adrian Lester, who, between stagings, took on another challenging role. That one, it turns out, was also one of Aldridge’s most famous: Othello in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. 

For black actors, Othello’s boots are among the few that the Bard left for them to fill—eventually, that is. In the last hundred years, the genius Paul Robeson climbed in; so, too, James Earl Jones, Laurence Fishburne and, most recently, Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave fame. But Aldridge was the first to put on those boots nearly 200 years ago, and, we shall see, it was anything but easy. I’m not talking about the challenge of memorizing lines. 

For more than two centuries following Othello’s 1604 launch in England, the title role, despite the description of “Moor,” had been filled by white actors, beginning with Richard Burbage, whose death in 1619 happened to coincide with the arrival of the first African slaves in the English colony of Jamestown in the New World. Two centuries later, it was Aldridge, a native of that New World, who ventured onto the stage to prove to theatrical audiences that a man who looked like Othello could also make the lines Shakespeare had written for him sing.

Aldridge’s Early Years

Though I’ve known about Aldridge for years, I was reminded of his extraordinary life while reading Alex Ross’s excellent profile in the New Yorker last July, intriguingly titled “Othello’s Daughter: The Rich Legacy of Ira Aldridge, the Pioneering Black Shakespearean.” For hardcore fans, the best available source to add to the mix is Bernth Lindfors’ excellent two-volume biography, Ira Aldridge, published by the University of Rochester Press in 2011. In addition, Lindfors has edited the valuable 2007 collection Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius (more on the meaning and relevance of that moniker in a bit).

“[L]ittle is known about Ira Aldridge’s early life,” Lindfors tells us. He was born on July 24, 1807, in lower Manhattan, across the East River from the present-day St. Ann’s Theater in Brooklyn. His parents were Daniel Aldridge, a straw vendor and preacher, and his wife, Luranah. Once Ira Aldridge established himself as an actor in Europe, he was known to fabricate more than one backstory to increase his notoriety. In one version, he was the son or grandson of a Fula prince. In another, he hailed from Senegal.

Aldridge received a formal education at the African Free School in New York City (graduating in 1822) and took up acting at the nation’s first black theater company, New York’s African Theater, located at Mercer and Houston Streets. There, Ross writes, “Aldridge played several roles and apparently took part in street fights that erupted in response to the venture.” When the African Theater closed for good in 1824, Aldridge slipped America for England, hoping he could find more work there than in his native land (a hope that would continue to lure black entertainers across the Atlantic well into the 20th century). The 19th century may have been witnessing a Shakespeare craze in the U.S., as James Shapiro’s new anthology, Shakespeare in America promises to show, but for an African-American actor seeking the main chance, the watchword might as well have been “go east, young man.”

Melissa Vicerky-Bareford summarizes the chain of events in her profile of Aldridge in the African American National Biography Online: “Aldridge became a dresser to the English actor Henry Wallack, who was performing in New York. Henry Wallack’s brother, James, employed Aldridge as a personal attendant while on passage to Liverpool. J.J. Sheahan, a friend of Aldridge’s, wrote that James Wallack had planned to sponsor Aldridge and make money off his engagements, but when Wallack told a reporter that Aldridge was his servant, the two went their separate ways.”