I recently learned about a black Shakespearean actor named Ira Aldrige who lived back in the 1800's. His life was news to me! Here's more about him from Wikipedia:
Ira Aldridge was born in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah Aldridge on July 24, 1807. 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, with the study of
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.
Aldridge's first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Company. In 1821, the group built the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African-American theatre in the United States.
Aldridge made his acting debut as Rolla, a Peruvian character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Pizarro. He may have also played the male lead in Romeo and Juliet, as reported later in an 1860 memoir by his schoolfellow, Dr. James McCune Smith.
Confronted with the persistent discrimination which black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to Liverpool, England, in 1824 with actor James Wallack. During this time the Industrial Revolution had begun, bringing about radical economic change that helped expand the development of theatres. 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 Keene, a homonym for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean. Aldridge observed a common theatrical practice of assuming an identical or similar nomenclature to that of a celebrity in order to garner attention.
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.
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.
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Had you ever heard of Ira Aldridge? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!