Celebrating Ira Aldridge: Black Youth Theatre at Shakespeare's Globe

Posted on 18 October 2017

Earlier this year, the Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre had the exciting opportunity of performing at Shakespeare’s Globe in celebration of Ira Aldridge. In this blog, drama worker and Black Youth Theatre leader Leon Phillips reflects on the events leading up to this momentous performance and shares his pride for being involved in the celebration of this significant historical figure.

On Tuesday 19 September, we took members of our youth groups (predominantly our Black Youth Theatre group) to Shakespeare’s Globe where we were took part in the production of Against Prejudice, an event honouring the legendary but often forgotten Ira Aldridge!

Our story began ways back in October 2016 when we were contacted by Tony Howard from Warwick University. His production of Against Prejudice was to be shown at the Belgrade Theatre in November, and he’d heard that we had a Black Youth Theatre group. He thought it would be appropriate to have them in a show that was telling the story of Ira Aldridge, the first black man to both play Othello and run a theatre … he did this all in the early 19th century when slavery had just been abolished. He also did this all by the time he’d turned 22.

The Black Youth Theatre took part in this show which was on the Belgrade’s B2 stage, and then after the show, led a procession from the theatre to a spot in Coventry City Centre where the old Coventry Theatre is believed to have stood… now in its place is the disused BHS building. During the procession there was much singing and when we arrived at our destination there was even more singing, and even though it was raining slightly, the Black Youth Theatre group sang with energy and vigour, with no encouragement needed from me or anyone else.

Tony spoke about Ira Aldridge. Earl Cameron was there and laid some flowers. The audience enjoyed hearing even more songs from the Black Youth Theatre, and we all made our way back to the theatre. On the way back I spoke to Tony who said that it would be really nice if we could get a plaque put up to help keep the memory of Ira Aldridge’s time in Coventry alive, and Tony told me that was his plan.

Nine months later a plaque was put up on the spot where we had laid the flowers and sang songs in November. This time is was Positive Youth Foundation who led on the presentation of this, with members of our Black Youth Theatre both involved with the presentation and present at the plaque unveiling to see the results of the work they had done in November, as the performance in November lead to the plaque being put up.

After the plaque was put up I thought that it was it. We had played our part in commemoration the memory of Ira Aldridge, and the plaque was up in the City Centre for people to see. We were about to get back to Coventry theatre life when who should contact us again but Tony Howard from Warwick University! Shakespeare’s Globe wanted us to bring Against Prejudice there to be performed. This was a really good opportunity for our participants.

In the months leading up to it, we worked on getting a choir together, rather than just having the Black Youth Theatre involved. This was because the performance was going to be mainly singing so it made sense for us to bring the choir and more people would get the opportunity to be involved in this project. With the help of choir maestro Una May Olomolaiye we spent 3 sessions rehearing songs for the show, while I rehearsed with Alexander Mushore and Sebbie Mudhai preparing the intro for the second half of the event.

On the morning of Tuesday 19 September the coach was at the Belgrade, ready to pick up all involved. Keith had accounted for everyone, people were excited as the coach left Coventry while I, Leon Phillips, was ill in bed! When everyone got there they had a lovely tour of the building, they had some lunch and took part in a workshop, whilst I was at home suffering from ‘man flu’. However I was not going to let ‘man flu’ deny me the satisfaction of seeing the outcome of the work that we had put it so I dragged myself out of bed, jumped on a train and found my way to the theatre just in time to see the group rehearsing with the other cast members Ray Fearon, Rakie Ayola, and Justin Avoth.

Jason Morell who we worked with when the show was first performed at the Belgrade had things in hand so I made sure I sat in the corner away from everyone making sure I did not spread my germs. They made some last minute changes to make the performances more integrated, and the group handled these like true professionals (they are used to last minute changes!) and we were ready to perform. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a beautiful space, and we were fortunate enough to be allowed to use candles while performing which was extra special – this was something we were looking forward to doing!

Before the show started the choir went into the foyer area to sing for the audience before they came into the auditorium. Una May who had worked on the songs for the last show also worked on the songs for this show and sung with them – their voices silenced the crowed! Una May opened the performance with a solo song backed up by the choir, the whole performance ran smoothly and the first half was over.

The second half opened with two of our former Black Youth Theatre members performing a duologue about Ira Aldridge’s daughters, who were singers and vocal coaches, before introducing the panelists talking part in a discussion about the importance of Ira, history, what things are like for black actors now, and how we are dealing with equality in theatre. The panel included David Olusoga (BBC Historian), Joseph Mydell (Actor), Martin Hoyles (Biographer) Joseph Marcell (Actor) and the Belgrade’s very own Associate Director, Justine Themen.

After seeing my participants perform on stage, serenading the audience and also hearing the panel discussion and what drives Justine to do what she does, and being involved in something that has immortalised Ira Aldridge in the City of Coventry, there are only three words to describe how I feel about my job… I love it!

Photo credit: James Edmondson