Het is vandaag 210 jaar geleden dat Ira Frederick Aldridge werd geboren in New York City. Hij was wellicht de eerste bekende zwarte acteur en hij is vooral beroemd geworden in de rol van Othello (zie hierboven het schilderij van James Northcote). Waarmee we dus het verhaal dat Paul Robeson de eerste zwarte Othello was naar het rijk der fabeltjes mogen verwijzen. (*)
Aldridge was born to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge. At age 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free black people and slaves. They were given a classical education and his early exposure to theater included viewing plays from the high balcony of the Park Theatre, New York’s leading theater of the time, and seeing productions of Shakespeare’s plays at the African Grove Theatre. This was the first resident African-American theatre in the United States and it was built by the African Company, a group founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett. It was also the place where Aldridge had first professional acting experience (in the early 1820s). He may have played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet, but this is not sure. Still, Shakespeare will be his main author throughout his whole career.
Confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824. The British Parliament had already outlawed the slave trade and was moving toward abolishing slavery in the British colonies, which increased the prospect of black actors being able to perform.
Having limited onstage experience and lacking name recognition, Aldridge concocted a story of his African lineage, claiming to have descended from the Fulani princely line. By 1831 he had taken the name of F.W.Keene, a homonym for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean. In addition to that, he would later be called the African Roscius, after the famous Roman actor of the first century BC.
On October 10, 1825, Aldridge made his European debut at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, the first African-American actor to establish himself professionally in a foreign country. He played the lead role of Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam, or A Slave’s Revenge; this play was an adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (itself adapted from Aphra Behn’s original work). Soon he moved up to the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello. Aldridge also appeared occasionally as white European characters, for which he would be appropriately made up with greasepaint and wig. Examples of these are the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. (Opmerking: het zijn wel allemaal slechteriken…)
An innovation Aldridge introduced early in his career was a direct address to the audience on the closing night of his engagement at a given theatre. Especially in the years leading up to the emancipation of all slaves in the British colonies in 1832, he would speak of the injustice of slavery and the passionate desire for freedom of those held in bondage.
Soon after going to England, in 1824 Aldridge married Margaret Gill, an English white woman. They were married for forty years until her death in 1864.
Aldridge’s first son, Ira Daniel, was born in May 1847. The identity of his mother is unknown, but it could not have been Margaret Aldridge, who was 49 years old and had been in ill health for years. She raised Ira Daniel as her own; they shared a loving relationship until her death. He emigrated to Australia in February 1867.
Aldridge first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany, where he was presented to the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, and performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia; he also performed in Budapest. An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia.
Now of an appropriate age, about this time, he played the title role of King Lear (in England) for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again (1862) and applied for British citizenship (1863).
A year after Margaret’s death, on April 20, 1865, Aldridge married his mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (1834-1915). They had four children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick and Amanda Aldridge, who all went on to musical careers, the two girls as opera singers.
Aldridge spent most of his final years with his family in Russia and continental Europe, interspersed with occasional visits to England. He planned to return to the post-Civil-War United States, but he died in August 1867 while visiting Łódź, Poland. The news of Ira Aldridge’s death in Poland and the record of his achievement as an actor reached the American black community slowly. In African-American circles, Aldridge was a legendary figure. Many black actors viewed him as an inspirational model, so when his death was revealed, several amateur groups sought to honor his memory by adopting his name for their companies. The most prominent troupe named for him was the Ira Aldridge Troupe in Philadelphia. It performed before a mixed audience, at a time when white and black audiences were still mostly separated. The Ira Aldridge Troupe was a minstrelsy group that caricatured Irish white men. So perhaps the Aldridge Troupe’s audience got its biggest satisfaction from the role reversal: since the beginning of minstrelsy, minstrels of Irish heritage, such as Dan Bryant and Richard Hooley, had been caricaturing black men — now it was the turn of black men to caricature the Irish.
Aldridge is the only actor of African-American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage honored with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. (Wikipedia)
(*) Ook John A.Arneaux en John Hewlett zouden hem nog voorafgaan.