Remembering Ira Aldridge

October 24, 2007 — Review

Written by Jenny Bourne

Two new publications for young people retrieve the life of Black actor, Ira Aldridge.

2007 marks not just the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade but also the two hundred years since the birth of Ira Aldridge. One of the greatest actors on the British stage, he has been utterly neglected – because he was Black.

Two educational booklets have just been produced to remedy his omission from the theatre pantheon. The first, The Ira Aldridge Teaching Pack for use on cross curricular History, English and Drama at key stages 3 and 4, has been researched and written by Oku Ekpenyon, who has done more than anyone to restore Aldridge’s reputation. It was through her endeavours that the Old Vic (formerly the Royal Coburg when Aldridge performed many of Shakespeare’s key roles) saw fit to remember him in a picture of his portrayal of Aaron in Titus Andronicus and English Heritage erected a blue plaque on his London house on Wednesday.

The 48-page A4 teaching pack based on illustrations – many of theatre bills provided by the academic expert of Aldridge, Professor Bernth Lindfors – is well produced and very clearly constructed as an educational tool for teachers. They might well benefit from using it in conjunction with the new book on Aldridge written by Martin Hoyles.

Ira Aldridge: celebrated 19th century actor is a narrative 104-page book, with many illustrations (including some in the teaching pack) aimed at young people. Simply and engagingly written, it provides the context for understanding the world into which Aldridge was born and the legacy of his work for other Black actors such as Paul Robeson.

Aldridge, born to free Blacks in the United States, was attracted to the theatre and aged 17 came to London in 1824 because racism (slavery was not abolished in the US) prevented a Black advancing on the stage. He was, on this side of the Atlantic, to become one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century, performing in all the major towns of the United Kingdom, touring Europe and Russia. He was most famous for his portrayal of Othello but was also the first Black actor to play Shakespearean White roles such as Shylock, Richard III, Lear and Macbeth. As Hoyles makes clear, Aldridge was not just a talented actor with a ‘modern’ realistic acting style, but also a consummate campaigner against racism and slavery.

Related links

Hansib Publications

The Ira Aldridge Teaching Pack by Oku Ekpenyon is available free of charge from the Ira Aldridge Bicentenary Project - email:oku_e@hotmail.com or phone 020 7226 4016. Ira Aldridge: celebrated 19th century actor by Martin Hoyles, Hansib Publications, PO Box 226, Hertford, SG14 3WY, £8.99.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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