Who Was the 1st Black Othello?

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

“I had the pleasure of Mr. Wallack’s friendship whist he performed in Chatham Street Theatre, New York, but I never was his servant,—nor the servant of any man,” Aldridge was to write in 1833, according to Lindfors.

‘London Calling’

On May 11, 1825, 17-year-old Ira Aldridge made his London debut playing Othello at the East End’s Royalty Theater (thankfully, Lindfors sorted this out after much confusion in the historical record over which part Aldridge played in which play). For those keeping count, that is just shy of 189 years ago but more than 220 years after Othello’s original premier and 209 years after William Shakespeare had died!  For his first performance as the ill-fated general, Aldridge used the stage name Mr. Keene, and was described in the Public Ledger as “a Gentleman of Colour, from the New York Theatre,” tells Lindfors, who suggests the name Keene may have been Aldridge’s mother’s maiden name, or he may have cribbed the name of the more popular Irish actor, Arthur Keene, or perhaps he chose the name as a nod to the British Shakespearean actor, Edmund Kean (keep an eye out for him).

Alex Ross of the New Yorker notes Aldridge “also called himself the African Roscius, after a famous actor of ancient Rome.” And when I read the entry on Roscius in Britannica, I understood why:

Roscius, in full Quintus Roscius Gallus (died 62 bc), Roman comic actor of such celebrity that his name became an honorary epithet for any particularly successful actor. Born into slavery at Solonium, Roscius gained such renown on the stage that the dictator Sulla freed him from bondage and conferred upon him the gold ring, the emblem of equestrian rank. He reportedly was very well paid for his talent.

Following his appearance at the Royalty, Aldridge took on the role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam (based on the Thomas Southerne play Oroonoko) at the Royal Coburg Theatre in London, in the fall of 1825. What intrigued me was the play’s synopsis that Lindfors quotes from the playbill:

This piece exhibiting a most faithful Portrait of the horrors that arise out of that dreadful traffic [slavery], which it is the proudest boast of Britain to use her best efforts towards suppressing, must receive an immense portion of additional interest from being supported in its principal Character by a Man of Colour, and one of the very race whose wrongs it professes to record; being the first instance in which one of that Complexion has displayed a striking display of Histrionic Talent, and which has secured for him the rapturous Approbation of an enlightened Public on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here was Aldridge, a free black man born in America, portraying a slave in a play that exposed the institution’s evils before the British government took steps to abolish slavery throughout its Empire in 1833 and nearly 40 years before his own country fought a civil war over the issue. Once again, Aldridge’s billing was “Mr. Keene, Tragedian of Colour, from the African Theater, New York,” notes Lindfors.

Leading up to the event, the Sunday Monitor was less than thrilled: “There is no end to dramatic novelty. The days of Theatrical dogs, horses, and elephants have passed away;—those of monkeys seem to be on the decline, and now for a more monstrous exhibition than all the rest, we are to be treated with a Black Actor, a right earnest African Tragedian.”

Yet once Aldridge proved himself onstage, the Monitor changed its tune: