theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
The Ira Aldridge Bicentenary Project celebrates the life of the most famous and successful black and classical actor of the 19th century. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge moved to London as a young man (he later became British), acting at the Surrey Theatre as early as 1825 as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam.
Although well-known in London and the British provinces, his greatest successes were in Europe (especially Russia) where he played roles in both contemporary plays and Shakespeare, notably Aaron, Othello, Macbeth, Shylock and Lear.
Aldridge died in Lodz, Poland, in 1867 – still touring. It is said that he received over 400 awards during his career, the most honoured actor of the age.
Yesterday morning, in the appropriately-named Hamlet Road near south London’s Alexander Palace, a simple ceremony took place. One of English Heritage’s Blue Plaques was unveiled at No. 5, the house where the famous nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge used to live.
Aldridge was an American who, after finding it almost impossible to make a career as a black man in the States, came to Britain in his teens. In 1833 he appeared at the Surrey Theatre as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam but it was in the provinces that he established his reputation before being accepted in the patent theatres.
He was much appreciated on the Continent, especially in Poland and Russia, and was weighed down with medals and honours awarded by the European courts. He was particularly known for his Othello and Aaron but, as Oku Ekpenyon told the gathered crowd before unveiling the plaque, he also played Macbeth and Lear (with a white make-up) and his Shylock was considerably appreciated by Jewish audiences in Eastern Europe who felt he gave the money-lender true humanity.
It was particularly appropriate that this unveiling took place in Black History Month and in the year of Aldridge’s bicentenary. It was touching that at the front of the assembled crowd were a number of black children, now among the residents at what had been this great black actor’s home.
Howard Loxton © 2007
Originally published on 25th October 2007 in Rogues & Vagabonds.
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