AFRICAN AMERICAN ACTOR IRA ALDRIDGE was William Shakespeare’s first black Othello — but history tells us that being the first of anything often brings with it big problems. -Ben Arogundade
Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play many of William Shakespeare’s leading roles, although he was initially treated harshly in Britain.
WHEN OTHELLO WAS FIRST performed by William Shakespeare’s theatre group the King’s Men, at London’s Whitehall Palace on November 1, 1604, the role of the Moor was played by white actor Richard Burbage in blackface make-up. At this time there was no prospect of using a black actor in the lead, as there were no professional thespians of colour within Elizabethan England, and even if there were, convention would have prohibited them from participating.
IRA ALDRIDGE’S OTHELLO ARRIVES
It would be over 200 years from its inception before the play would eventually feature a black actor in the lead. African American Ira Frederick Aldridge became the first. Born in New York in 1807, he emigrated to England at the age of 17, where he succeeded in becoming a distinguished Shakespearean, featuring in many of the Bard’s roles, including his first major performance of Othello at London’s Royalty theatre in 1826. He also played other Shakespeare leads, including Macbeth and Richard III in Hull in 1832, for which he wore pale make-up and a wig.
Unsurprisingly given the times, there was considerable resistance to the presence of the world’s first black Othello. 18th century London was the epicentre of Britain’s
pro-slavery lobby, and the press conducted a campaign of blatant racism against him. In one of his two Othello performances at the Covent Garden theatre in 1833, The Atheneum objected to actress Ellen Tree as Desdemona, being “pawed about on the stage by a black man.” The Times newspaper had been just as scathing eight years prior, when it commented that, “Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.” A series of eleven performances at the Surrey Theatre were accompanied by a press report describing him as an “unseemly nigger”.
LOVE AT LAST
Hated in the capital, Aldridge was forced to tour outside London, gaining plaudits in Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool. He also expanded internationally, performing in Ireland, Berlin, Stockholm, Brussels, Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg, where he was very favourably received. At a performance in Russia in 1863, French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier noted that Aldridge’s performance was “Othello himself, as Shakespeare has created him…quiet, reserved, classic and majestic.”
So revered was Aldridge within continental Europe that when he died, on August 7, 1867, while on tour in Łódź, Poland, he was given a state funeral. He was 59.