Ira Frederick Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello. Born in New York in 1807, he emigrated to England at 17 where he began his Shakespearean career. At the London Royal Theatre in 1826, Aldridge became the first black Othello, as opposed to the custom of the time to put white actors in blackface. In addition to Othello, Aldridge also played many other lead roles, including:
- Macbeth in Macbeth
- Richard III in Richard III
London during this time was the epicenter of the pro-slavery movement in England, and Aldridge faced many trials because of it. He received scathing remarks in newspaper reviews. One paper, “The Atheneum”, objected to his performance on stage with actress Ellen Tree (playing Desdemona) saying that she was being “pawed about on the stage by a black man.” After a series of 11 performances at the Surrey Theatre, he was described in a press report as an “unseemly nigger.”
While ostracized in London, Aldridge was able to find fame outside of the capital. He was praised for his work in Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Liverpool; he also gained international fame by touring Ireland, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, among other cities.
Following a performance in Russia in 1863, French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier noted that Aldridge’s performance was “Othello himself, as Shakespeare has created him…quiet, reserved, classic and majestic.”
Aldridge died in August of 1867 and was given a state funeral.
(information gathered from arogundade.com)
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