Christy Desmet and Sujata Iyengar, University of Georgia (USA)
Krystyna Kujawińska-Courtney, University of Łódź (Poland)
Ira Aldridge, the well-known nineteenth-century African American Shakespearean actor, found it impossible to work professionally in the United States, the land of his birth, because of racial and color prejudice. He took refuge in Europe, eventually dying in Łódź, where he is buried. Born in New York City, Aldridge began his career with the internationally recognized African Grove Theatre in that city. Limited by mid-nineteenth-century racism, he emigrated to Liverpool in search of additional opportunities to perform professionally, and performed Shakespearean and other dramatic roles in various cities in Britain – including Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, and Liverpool. He toured other European cities, from Dublin to Brussels, Vienna, Constantinople, Stockholm, and St. Petersburg, where his performance of Othello was met with great enthusiasm. Ira Aldridge transgressed not only geographical but methodological boundaries in his work, deploying what we might now call color-blind or rather color-conscious casting. His first role was Rollo, the hero of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s Pizzaro, who was of Peruvian descent. In addition to Othello, the Shakespearean role for which he was most famous, Aldridge played in Titus Andronicus, and (perhaps) Romeo and Juliet. He sometimes played caricatured figures, such as Mungo the black servant in the afterpiece The Padlock. But he also played white characters, wearing white-face make-up to play Bertram, the title roles in Richard III and Macbeth, and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and adding a long white prosthetic hair-piece to play Lear (for which, as Théophile Gautier noted, he carefully and symbolically refused to whiten his hands).Ira Aldridge has been the subject of recent books, such as Bernth Lindfors’s Ira Aldridge (2011) and Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius (2007) and several important essays by Krystyna Kujawinska-Courtney, “Ira Aldridge, Shakespeare, and Color-Conscious Performances in Nineteenth-Century Europe” and “Ira Aldridge: European Shakespeare Tragedian.” In 2011, Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, based on Aldridge’s life with Adrian Lester in the title role, premiered in London and New York. He continues to be portrayed as an antebellum African American hero in literature aimed at young black readers, such as Glenda Armand’s Ira’s Shakespeare Dream (2015).There is much more work to be done on Ira Aldridge as a transatlantic and European Shakespearean actor, and Poland, where Aldridge ultimately found a refuge and a showcase for his talents, provides the ideal place in which to consider his far-reaching legacy.
This brief account of Aldridge’s life and work foregrounds some of the major research questions surrounding the study of race in European theatre: what are the functions of and future of white- and blackface makeup on European stages? How does the concept of race change with transatlantic or transnational movement? How are both color-blind and color-conscious casting choices complicated by a change of place? How do celebrity and star-power inflect an actor’s or character’s perceived race, ethnicity, or national affiliation in different locales and contexts?