Lately I have been surrounded by theatre, and after watching the Lion King at the Lyceum, I was glad to see an African dominated production doing so well. I was sure the Lion King wasn’t the first production to hire black people, and I was glad to stumble across Ira Aldrdige, a British actor in the 1800’s.
[Portrait in pastel, by Taras Shevchenko, 1858]
Aldridge grew up with a love for theatre. He was born in New York, 1807, but after a closure in the African Theatre amateur group which he joined and the discrimination which black actors faced in the US, he moved to Britain and continued he’s carer. He started off as a dresser to the British actor Henry Wallack. Gradually moving to the stage, with most of his performances happening in London; he did tour Europe with successes in Germany, Prussia, Budapest, Serbia and Russia.
He did a lot of work in Shakespearean plays, including playing Romeo, Orthello, Hamlet and a role in the play King Lear. His London West End performance in 1833 faced racist views, however he was still popular in other parts of England (and Europe too).
[Oil portrait of 1826 by James Northcote of Aldridge dressed for the role of Othello]
He married Margaret Gill, an English woman, in 1824, they were married for 40 years (until her death). He then married he’s mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt, who he already had a son with, Ira Daniel (sounds like a back-up plan). They had four more children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers. He died in 1867, during a visit to Poland.
I was glad to come across his story, it shows that the slave trade is not the only thing for black people to associate with when it comes to the 19th century. His legacies include:
- His life was the subject of a play called Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti at the Tricycle Theatre in 2012.
- Aldridge is the only African American to have a bronze plaque among the 33 actors honoured at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
[Images from Wikipedia]