Ira Aldridge: written out of history but back with a vengeance

The 2016 performance at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, photography by Joe Bailey

‘Ira was relentless. He didn’t take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up…’ Adrian Lester

Ira Aldridge’s tragedy is that soon after his death, he was written out of history. His triumph is that all over the world he is finally being written back in — with a vengeance.

On the 150th anniversary of his death, an event at Shakespeare’s Globe in London will celebrate the life and legacy of Ira — the first black theatre manager in the UK and the first black actor to triumph in Shakespeare.

The 2016 performance at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, photography by Joe Bailey

The staged reading first took place at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (pictured) and has been created by The University of Warwick’s Tony Howard, in collaboration with the university’s Multicultural Shakespeare Project.

In this blog, Tony introduces the story of Ira Aldridge, ahead of next Tuesday’s event…

The work of the Multicultural Shakespeare project.

On Tuesday, Ira Aldridge will return to South London and the Thames, where he scored his first theatrical success in 1825.

Photo: ‘Othello, the Moor of Venice’, 1882.2, James Northcote, courtesy of Manchester Art Gallery

Four years ago, Shakespeare’s Globe hosted To Tell My Story, a touring exhibition I curated for the Multicultural Shakespeare project based at the University of Warwick. It honours the massive but side-lined contribution of British Black and Asian performers to our understanding of Shakespeare, our greatest yet most problematic cultural icon.

Ira Aldridge had pride of place in the exhibition as the great pioneer, the inspiration for artists from Paul Robeson to Adrian Lester, who was then bringing Ira to life again in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet. But we called the Aldridge section ‘Written Out of History’, because his astonishing life has been virtually forgotten in theatre history and black history. Well, since then, he has been written back in.

Red Velvet is being performed all over America. A decade ago the scholar Bernth Lindfors published a monumental four-volume account of Ira’s life. This new performance is indebted to it and to Coventry’s Forgotten Theatre by Ted Bottle, a fascinating history of the Coventry Theatre which, as Professor Lindfors discovered, Ira Aldridge ran as Manager for a few months in 1828, at the very height of the struggle against slavery.

The 2016 performance at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, photography by Joe Bailey

This summer, Arts Council England committed itself to ‘Increasing the diversity of senior leadership in art and culture’ — yet nearly two hundred years ago Aldridge and his hosts showed us what might be done. This event tries to shed light on how and why it happened.

Today’s Coventry citizens have recognised the significance of their predecessor’s openness and contempt for prejudice, and this chapter of the Ira Aldridge story has become part of their bid to be the UK’s City of Culture 2021. That couldn’t be more apt, because Ira then was only 20, going on 21.

So how would we describe Ira Aldridge today if he stood on the doorstep? Refugee? Economic migrant? Or would we recognise a visionary and a pioneer, and give him the keys to our theatre?

‘I might have feared’, he wrote then, ‘that, unknown and unfriended, I had little claim to public notice did I not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’

His words resonate today, and challenge us.

The 2016 performance at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, photography by Joe Bailey

“After spending so long absent from our artistic history it is fitting and just that we celebrate him now…” Adrian Lester

Against Prejudice takes place on Tuesday 19 September at Shakespeare’s Globe, featuring actors and panelists Ray Fearon, Rakie Ayola, Justin Avoth, David Olusogo, Joseph Mydell, Joseph Marcell and Martin Hoyles.

Against Prejudice, Shakespeare’s Globe, 2017