On Tuesday 19 September 2017 at 7.00pm the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe presented Against Prejudice: A Celebration of Ira Aldridge.
This included a revival of the drama-documentary (first shown at the Belgrade Theatre Coventry in November 2016) telling Aldridge's story.
'Fascinating. His own words, invested with new relevance by recent events, reach out to us poignantly.' (Coventry Today)
Ray Fearon as Ira Aldridge and Rakie Ayola as his wife Margaret.
Belgrade Theatre, 2016
wrote in the programme: 'Ira was relentless. He didn't take no for an answer and he never, ever gave up. After spending so long absent from our artistic history. It is fitting and just that we celebrate him now.'
Ira Aldridge made history by becoming the manager of the Coventry Theatre for a season - the first black artist ever to run a British Theatre - in 1828 at the height of the fight against slavery. A plaque was recently unveiled at the site of the theatre to mark his life and achievements on the 150th anniversary of his death.
The rehearsed reading featured Ray Fearon, Rakie Ayola and Justin Avorth, with songs from by Una May and the Coventry Belgrade's Black Youth Theatre. It was followed by a discussion with historians and performers sharing their perspectives on Ira Aldridge's importance. Including: Martin Hoyles, author of Ira Aldridge: Celebrated 19th-century Actor; Joseph Mydell, director of the documentary, The Black Tragedian; Joseph Marcell, who played Aldridge in David Pownall's drama Black Star; and the prize-winning historian David Olusoga, presenter of the recent BBCTV season, Black and British: A Forgotten History. They were joined by the guest of honour Earl Cameron.
BRITISH THEATRE GUIDE:
In July, newspapers carried a report of an attack on a 14-year-old African American boy on the streets of New York. Police were said not to have intervened but joined in the assault.
It is a very contemporary story, the kind to which the Black Lives Matter campaign has been a response, but this was nearly 200 years ago, in 1821. The lad was an actor, a member of the recently formed African Company at the African Grove Theatre, opened that year by West Indian William Brown. The attack was part of a campaign against it and the theatre was burned down under suspicious circumstance.
This is where Tony Howard begins his dramatised account of the life of the landmark African-American actor Ira Aldridge, for he was that boy and that attack is the first surviving record we have of him.[...]
Aldridge got some good reviews—but terrible ones too, especially in The Times. This was at the height of agitation against slavery, which had been abolished in Britain but not in the colonies where British plantation owners feared for their fortunes if slaves were freed. Aldridge was a symbol of the black man’s intelligence and humanity; the pro-slavery lobby were probably paying for him to be discredited.[...]
It was in 1828 that Aldridge had a booking at the Coventry Theatre Royal at a time when that house was at a low ebb with inferior actors. The theatre owner, a former local mayor, was so impressed by him that he asked Aldridge, still only twenty, to mount a season as theatre manager. He accepted, formed his own company and, turning down suggestions he open with a popular melodrama, opened with Shakespeare [...].
That is the key part of this drama-documentary, written to mark the Coventry association and first performed at the Belgrade Theatre there last November. Tony Howard’s script gives an illuminating look at a life that too few are aware of and places it historically as part of the anti-slavery battle. When he was in Coventry, the city raised a petition in favour of abolition to send to Parliament and Aldridge himself often spoken in support of the movement.
With Ray Fearon as Ira Aldridge and Rakie Ayloa and Justin Avoth voicing other people and providing reviews and reports from newspapers and documentary sources, this dramatisation is both informative and moving. It provides the opportunity for Fearon to give lively performances of speeches from some of key roles that Aldridge played. Jason Morell’s direction gets strong playing from all three actors and gives this production the energy of a fully staged production rather than a rehearsed reading.
The Belgrade’s Black Youth Theatre provides musical backing and links a new generation of black performers with their illustrious predecessor, providing the introduction to the discussion between a panel of academics, historians and performers that followed the play.
That discussion also welcomed the presence of centenarian veteran actor Earl Cameron, one in the line of twentieth-century black actors who, so long after, succeeded Aldridge and one with his own direct connection for, as a young post-war performer, he took voice lessons from Aldridge’s daughter, singer, composer and teacher Amanda.
Earl Cameron was coaxed into giving Othello’s “I have done the state some service”. As mediated through Amanda, was this what Aldridge sounded like?
LITERANDRA BLOG REVIEW:
On the 19th September 2017, Globe Education (Shakespeare’s Globe) organised an evening event remembering the great and pioneering actor Ira Aldridge. Most of us probably know about him as the first black actor who performed Shakespeare in the United Kingdom. Ira Aldridge was an African-American who left the USA at the age of 17 because he was unable to find a job as the United States were still enforcing slavery. Even though Aldridge was free, the societal norms and laws of the time did not allow him to become a real actor, especially not in the company of other white actors. After constant and vicious attacks on his company and himself, he decided to sail to Europe for a better chance at becoming a respected actor.
The evening at the Globe consisted of two parts, the first part was a performance that was given by Ray Fearon, Rakie Ayola, Justin Avoth, with Una May and the Belgrade Theatre Coventry Black Youth Theatre. After a brief interval, a fantastic line-up of panelists came on stage to discuss the life and times of Ira Aldridge. Among the panelists were Tony Howard, Martin Hoyles, Joseph Marcell, Jason Morell, Joseph Mydell, David Olusoga, and Justine Themen. Before going into more details, I have to say that the entire evening was absolutely fantastic, and if you were not there, you really missed out on a superb evening of theatre performance, and intellectual, as well as emotional discussions surrounding the great actor Ira Aldridge.
The first part of the evening (the performance) was essentially a very creative way of recounting Ira’s life and times. The three actors on stage read different abstracts from newspapers and reviews and other documents regarding Ira’s arrival or his performances in England at the theatre. Included were also abstracts from parliamentary speeches and debates regarding the issue of the abolishment of slavery. This way, we got a more in-depth, personal, and ‘inside’ view of Ira’s life and the extraordinary times he lived in. We also understood what an extreme achievement it was, for a black man to become the director of a theatre in England – a country that at the time, was openly divided along racial lines.
Ira is probably best known for his outstanding performances as Othello or Aaron, but he also wanted to play Hamlet and other ‘white’ roles, and despite the many humiliations and racist attacks that he had to endure, he did play the roles he wanted to play. After what felt like 20 minutes, but was well over an hour of excellent performance, Ray Fearon read a kind of eulogy about Ira Aldridge, his life, and achievements. The said eulogy also paid tribute to all the Africans who had been ripped from the shores of Africa, to be branded, bought, sold, and degraded to a lesser status than animals. While Ray Fearon, a brilliant actor himself, read his lines, the Coventry Belgrade Black Youth Theatre group sang a beautiful Yoruba song – traditionally a worship song (Ise Oluwa) – which had some lyrics in English that were reminiscent of the tragedy that happened to millions of Africans who were torn from their shores, and thrust onto distant lands – where their uncertain futures now lay – miles and oceans away from home. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse audience was completely silent, the moment was electric, magical, and deeply moving. I had to fight back my tears, and, judging by the rustling of tissues after the performance, I guess others had to do the same, too.
As if this fantastic performance was not enough, the panel discussion after the interval was just as amazing. We also had the honour and privilege to meet the great actor Mr. Earl Cameron (who recently turned 100 years old) and who was taught in the art of acting by Amanda Ira Aldridge, the daughter of Ira Aldridge. To top it all off, Mr Cameron performed a piece of Othello – needless to say that the audience was beside itself, clapping with immense fervour and giving a standing ovation to Mr Cameron. This moment, this performance was as close as we would ever come to seeing Ira Aldridge play Othello. It was nothing short of magical.
Apart from the great performance, the fantastic discussion and the unforgettable short performance of Mr Earl Cameron, I learned a great deal about Ira Aldridge and his life during the course of the evening, and I have become even more fascinated with this grandiose actor, who became a successful black actor, and excelled in Shakespearean roles against all the odds of his time. To put it in the words of Mr Earl Cameron: ‘The point was not that [Ira Aldridge] was the first black Othello but that he was such a great Othello.’