About Ira Aldridge…
Ira Frederick Aldridge, an African-American and son of a former slave, was born in New York City on July 24, 1807. During his lifetime, he achieved status as a classical actor in Europe and Russia that would have been improbable for anyone from America, but as an actor of color, can only be classified as heroic.
Ira developed a passion for theatre at a very young age, and was a frequent audience member and sometime dresser at the prestigious Park Theater in Manhattan. It was as a very young company member in William Brown’s African Grove Theater, however, which would see the first steps on his remarkable life’s journey. Among other roles, he played Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, and also was a company member when James Hewlett enacted the first recorded instance of an actor of color playing the title role in Othello.
Upon the dissolution of this remarkable company, Ira, still a teenager, made his way to England. Over the next decade he would slowly establish himself by touring the regions of the British Isles, performing in burlesques and minstrel shows wherein he presented comic scenes and played the banjo. His ambitions would propel him above these low entertainments, however, as he also peppered his performances with Shakespearean scenes and recitations until he finally became attached to various touring companies presenting fully realized productions of Othello in which he played the title role.
Most of the action in Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet center around two remarkable days in which Ira found himself employed by the prestigious Royal Opera House, more commonly known as Covent Garden, to replace the venerable actor Edmund Kean after Mr. Kean collapsed in the demanding role of Othello. Ira, a ten-year veteran of touring the regions, was one of the few actors in the city with the experience and the availability to play the part.
Despite the crushing blow of being dismissed from the Covent Garden company after two days, this did little to dampen the ambitions of the driven 26 year old actor. His career would continue for 30 more years, during which time he would perform extensively in Europe and Russia, receiving numerous titles, accolades, and medals from various Heads of State.
Doubtlessly, however, his greatest honor would be the mounting of one of only 33 plaques commemorating great classical actors in the Shakespeare Memorial Theater in the playwright’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Ira Aldridge died on August 7, 1867, and is buried in the final town in which he was to tour, Lodz, Poland.