Coventry pays tribute to groundbreaking African-American actor Ira Aldridge

Posted on 31 July 2017

On Thursday 3 August, at 2.30pm, Coventry will honour the achievements of one of the greatest figures in both black history and the history of theatre: the Lord Mayor Tony Skipper will unveil a blue plaque commemorating the Midlands city’s unique links to the African American actor Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to portray Shakespeare’s Othello on stage, who died 150 years ago. A trailblazer in all senses of the word, Ira Aldridge is part of Coventry’s rich theatrical history.

In 1828, in the age of slavery, Aldridge became manager of the Coventry Theatre – the first black person ever to run a British theatre. His performances and the plays he presented led the city to petition Parliament to abolish slavery. He did all of this at the age of just twenty.

In an open letter to the people of Coventry, Ira Aldridge stated his belief that ‘Being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’
His words still resonate with us.

Ira Aldridge broke down racial barriers. He came to England to escape racism in America (where he was savagely beaten for daring to act in Shakespeare) only to encounter prejudice once again. But he persevered against all odds, performed for the crowned heads of Europe, and has become an inspirational figure for artists from Paul Robeson to Adrian Lester, who recently played Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama Red Velvet. Lolita Chakrabarti on the Coventry event: “It is so unbelievably gratifying to see Aldridge get his recognition at last.’

The ceremony marks the 150th anniversary of his death.

Guest of honour at the unveiling on August 3rd will be the veteran – and still working – Bermudan film star Earl Cameron CBE (Inception, Thunderball, The Interpreter) who was trained by Ira Aldridge’s daughter Amanda. Mr. Cameron has been a key part of the campaign to honour Ira: he will be 100 on August 8th.

The campaign to install a plaque in Coventry was launched last November when, in a torchlit procession from the Belgrade Theatre, Earl Cameron laid flowers on the site of Ira Aldridge’s long-lost theatre, which would have been situated at 43-47 Upper Precinct, outside the former British Home Stores. . He was joined by teenage singers from the Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre – who will also attend the unveiling – and by leading actors including the cast of the drama-documentary Against Prejudice, in which RSC Associate Artist Ray Fearon played Ira Aldridge.

Tony Howard, who leads Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare project, comments: ‘It was deeply moving. The Black Youth Theatre sang songs that Ira Aldridge himself performed on that spot nearly two centuries ago, and they sang them to a gentleman who knew Ira’s daughter. Three generations came together to honour a forgotten moment in our multicultural past. In January 1828 Ira Aldridge was advertised as a fairground attraction – “A Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour”- yet only a few weeks later Coventry gave him the keys to its theatre.

It was obvious there had to be a permanent memorial. ‘The building Aldridge managed was demolished long ago, and the Blitz even destroyed the streets around it. So the plaque marking the site will be in the heart of modern Coventry, in the Precinct. Every day hundreds of shoppers will be reminded of a great African American and of the city’s openness to “foreigners and strangers”.

A month ago Arts Council England admitted that still not enough has been done to open up theatres to diversity, especially at the level of “leadership”. The Ira Aldridge story reminds us of what can be done.’

These events are supported by the University of Warwick, the Belgrade Theatre Coventry, the Coventry City of Culture 2021 Bid, and Being Human, a festival of the Humanities led by the School of Advanced Study and University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council. They are organised by Tony Howard and Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare Project.

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