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Ira Aldridge as Othello
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gstecyk's picture

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200 years before #OscarsSoWhite, there was Ira Aldridge.  

At a time when black people were still being bought and sold as property, Aldridge became the first internationally famous African American actor. To this day, he is the first and only African American with a bronze plaque in the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in the Bard’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Aldridge’s most iconic role was Othello, or Shakespeare’s "The O.J. Simpson Story." Racial tensions come to a head when a black man (SPOILERS) murders his beautiful white wife in a jealous rage.  This most famous black role in the Western Canon was traditionally played by a white actor in blackface, so Aldridge was a true pioneer.

Aldridge was born to free people of color in New York, but fled for Britain at age 17 to escape the racial discrimination of the antebellum USA.  Even so, he endured more than his share of racist BS in Europe. The pro-slavery lobby in Britain objected to him “pawing” a white actress on stage, while so-called serious critics claimed that “Owing to the shape of his lips it is utterly impossible for him to pronounce English,” and even went so far as to call him an “unseemly” N-word. Nevertheless, he persisted and became very popular and highly regarded despite the racist critics. Especially in Germany and Imperial Russia, where he toured for royalty and made friends with War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy.

Aldridge was also popular with the ladies.  Art imitated life when he married Margaret Gill, a white English woman, and once again incurred the wrath of the anti-slavery lobby. Margaret must have been an understanding wife, because she raised Aldridge’s son by an undetermined mistress as her own child.  After her death, he married self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt (possibly the child’s mother), and had four more children with her, two of whom became famous opera singers.

Aldridge, while quite successful, was never given his due credit. Hindsight shows just how revolutionary he was. It was nearly 100 years until actor Paul Robeson became only the second African American actor to play Othello in 1930, and he received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Thank goodness we’ve learned the lessons of the past...or have we?  In 2015, the film Focus was trolled by racists on social media for presenting white actress Margot Robbie as a viable love interest for Will Smith. *Sigh* Maybe we’ll get our sh*t together some day. Till then, we have badasses like Ira Aldridge to inspire us.

    

 

Sources

Sources

  1. Michael Williams, “Aldridge, Ira (1807-1867),” The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, accessed February 13, 2017, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/aldridge-ira-1807-1867
  2. Ben Arogundade, “Ira Aldridge Biography: The First Black Actor To Play William Shakespeare’s Othello,” The Culture of Shakespeare, accessed February 13, 2017, http://www.arogundade.com/ira-frederick-aldridge-first-black-actor-to-pl....
  3. Ian Thomas, “Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) Famous 19th century black Shakespearean actor,” Black History Month365, last modified August 21, 2015, http://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/music-entertainers/i...
  4. “Black Presence: Black Actors,” accessed February 13, 2017, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/culture/theatre...
  5. “Paul Robeson collection 1925-1956,” accessed February 13, 2017, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/culture/theatre...
  6. Jen Yamato, “Racists Attack Will Smith’s ‘Focus’ Over Film’s Depiction of An Interracial Relationship,” The Daily Beast, February 27, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/27/racists-attack-will-smi...