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.”
“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.
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:
Mr. Keene excited that gratification which should ever result from the belief, that a part of our species, whatever be the difference of hue, is advancing to that dignity which is man’s sole prerogative; for we are convinced, that the sooty visitors of the African Theatre are not in so low a state of ignorance as is generally imagined, if they patronize and can appreciate the intellectual efforts of Mr. Keene. His performance throughout was marked by feeling, devoid of the least extravagance, a quick perception, and to which may be added, a degree of dignity.
If only that critic had written with the same degree of dignity!
At the Coburg, Aldridge also acted the part of Gambia in The Ethiopian; or the Quadroon of the Mango Grove, a version of Thomas Morton’s The Slave. “Audiences would come expecting one kind of show and he would give them another,” Lindfors writes. “Instead of making them laugh, he would compel them to think. He would confront them with their own prejudices, subverting by example their long-held belief in the inferiority and barbarism of Africans.”
Aldridge finished at the Coburg on Nov. 27, 1825. When London was slow to offer him more promising roles, he toured the provinces, drawing great acclaim as the servant Mungo in The Padlock, beginning in 1827. He also began playing white characters, including the Dutch smuggler Dirk Hatteraick in Sir Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, Rob MacGregor in Rob Roy and Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In The Siberian Exiles, performed in Hull, England, in 1831, Lindfords even has Aldridge “impersonating a white man who was disguised as a man of color.” (Maybe the Wayans brothers could do a prequel!)
Opposition to Aldridge
Despite his successes, however, “[a] black actor in those days couldn’t please everyone,” Lindfors writes. Aldridge faced especially tough barbs from the London press. It all came to a head in March 1833, when the renowned actor Edmund Kean collapsed (and later died) during a run of Othello at the Theater Royal at Covent Garden. Grasping for a replacement, the theater manager tapped Aldridge, who, by then, was performing under his real name. The press skewered the decision. In fact, before Aldridge even stepped onto the stage on April 10, the Figaro in London complained of:
[t]he introduction to the boards of Covent Garden theater, of that miserable nigger whom we found in the provinces imposing on the public by the name of the African Roscius. This wretched upstart is about to defile the stage, by a foul butchery of Shakespeare, and Othello is actually the part chosen for the sacrilege … We have before jammed this man into atoms by the relentless power of our critical battering ram, but unless this notice causes the immediate withdrawal of his name from the bills, we must again inflict on him such a chastisement as must drive him from the stage he has dishonoured, and force him to find in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.
Aldridge’s race was at the forefront of the most severe attacks. For example, while the Athenaeum claimed, “We have no ridiculous prejudice against any fellow creature, because he chances to be of a different color from ourselves,” it was horrified at the onstage intimacy between Aldridge’s Othello and the white actress playing his wife, Desdemona, Ellen Tree: “In the name of propriety and decency, we protest against an interesting actress and lady-like girl, like Miss Ellen Tree, being subjected by the manager of the theater to the indignity of being pawed about by Mr. Henry Wallack’s black servant.”
Aldridge only performed two nights at Covent Garden. Lindfors argues that the primary reason for the short stay might be that the box office was low for his performances—a drought perhaps caused by a combination of negative publicity and a flu outbreak. Lindfors also wonders if the flu had compromised Aldridge’s own performance. Whatever the actual reason, the poisonous Figaro in London took credit for having “hunted the Nigger from the boards,” as Ross notes.
Triumphs on Tour
Aldridge performed at smaller London theaters through June 1833, but it was clear that, as before, his future would be on the road. Notes Ross, “[a]fter the Covent Garden setback, Aldridge retreated to the provinces, and in Ireland, among other places, he became a full-on star, his popularity only heightened by stories of Londoners’ disdain.”
In the ensuing years, Aldridge variously performed with touring companies, started his own touring troupe, accepted engagements with local acting companies and even devised his own solo show, which, says Ross, “mixed lectures on drama, recitations of Shakespeare, commentary on racism, and popular songs.” Apparently, as part of his act, Aldridge borrowed from the American blackface performer, Thomas Rice, and was even known to don whiteface as entertainment.
A turning point in Aldridge’s life came in 1852, when he began his first tour of the European continent. By all accounts, the trip was a soaring success. Ross writes: INDENTOne critic suggested that Aldridge might be ‘the greatest of all actors.’ Another said that ‘since the time of the ancient kings of the Athenian stage no one has seen anything like it.’ Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, conferred on Aldridge a Gold Medal for Art and Science; Emperor Franz Josef of Austria gave him the Grand Cross of the Order of Leopold. Numerous other honors followed. His most impressive title was Chevalier Ira Aldridge, Knight of Saxony, and he did not hesitate to use it.
In Germany, Aldridge attracted another unlikely fan: the composer Richard Wagner, who, Ross writes, likely saw Aldridge perform as Othello while living in Zurich in 1857 (the same year the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Dred Scott thwarting the cause of black citizenship).
The following year Aldridge traveled to Russia, where “his fame reached its Zenith,” Ross explains, though he humorously adds: “It’s difficult to judge Russian descriptions of his acting, since by this time he was performing with a troupe of Germans, who recited in German while he carried on in English. The spectacle must have been more visual than verbal.”
Our old friend Joel A. Rogers remarked upon the same in volume two of his book World’s Great Men of Color, in which he quoted a moving report on Aldridge’s performance as Othello in St. Petersburg, Russia, by Le Nord (December 1858; Rogers mistakenly had it as 1850):
The scene in the third act when the sentiment of jealousy is aroused in the ferocious Moor, is the true triumph of Aldridge. At the first word of the wily insinuation, you see his eyes kindle; you feel the tears in his voice when he questions Iago, then the deep sob which stifles it, and finally when he is persuaded that his wretchedness is complete, a cry, or rather a roar, like that of a wild beast starts from his abdomen. I seem to hear that cry yet; it chilled us with fear and made every spectator shudder. Tears wet his cheek; his mouth foamed and his eyes flashed fire. I have never seen an artist identify himself so perfectly with the character he represented. An actor told me that he heard him sob after his exit from the scene. Everybody—men, women, and children—wept. Boileau was right in saying to actors: ‘Weep yourself, if you would make others weep.’
The Russian critic K. Zvantsev, who also saw Aldridge’s Othello in St. Petersburg, added: “The liberation of the Negro in the United States … becomes something internal, not only for the enslaved people, but for us all … From Othello is torn the deep cry ‘O misery, misery, misery!’ and in that misery of the African artist is heard the far-off groans of his own people, oppressed by unbelievably slavery” (as quoted in The Oxford Shakespeare: Othello: The Moor of Venice).
Death and Legacy
For those interested in Aldridge’s personal life, I encourage you to read the Ross piece in its entirety. Suffice it to say he was married twice, but even then, as Ross explains, “there were other women, all apparently white, and four of his six children—including Luranah [Aldridge], the future Wagner singer—were illegitimate. In America, Aldridge’s private life would have been as uncommon as his public one, and far more dangerous.”
Aldridge became a British citizen in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation in his native U.S. The close of the Civil War found him planning his long-awaited return tour, with an itinerary that had him opening in New York and performing 100 dates across the country. As I mentioned at the top, the 19th-century belonged to Shakespeare, and Aldridge was one of the Bard’s most gifted interpreters. Tragically, though, he fell ill one day before his planned departure. Ira Aldridge died in Lodz, Poland, on Aug. 7, 1867, “possibly as a result of a lung condition,” Ross suggests.
Though Aldridge is not a household name today, he was a figure of inspiration to many African Americans of the early 20th century, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. In his 1930 classic, Black Manhattan, James Weldon Johnson hailed Aldridge as “one of the world’s great tragedians.” And when I think of what Aldridge accomplished as Othello 78 years before Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, I feel particularly moved by the passage in Du Bois’ book:
I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.
Ira Aldridge didn’t just sit with Shakespeare; he breathed life into his characters on stage. Evaluating his legacy, Alex Ross writes, “black acting companies in New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Baltimore adopted the name Aldridge Players of Aldridge Dramatic Club. In 1930, Paul Robeson assumed Ira’s mantle by playing Othello in the West End [of London]; Amanda Aldridge [Ira’s daughter, the gifted music teacher] was in attendance, and gave Robeson the gold earrings that her father had worn as Othello.”
Now, almost 150 years after his death, the great Ira Aldridge has finally returned to his native country, not as a living man but, fittingly, as a part to be performed. Perhaps one day there won’t be just a play about him, but a theater on Broadway named for him, as Howard University in Washington, D.C., has done.
I would say the great Ira Aldridge was the Denzel Washington of his time, but really, Denzel is the Aldridge of ours. To celebrate both, let’s all try to catch Red Velvet and A Raisin in the Sun in New York this spring!
As always, you can find more "Amazing Facts About the Negro" on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.