Coventry & Warwickshire

First black Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge honoured

Ira Aldridge as Othello Image copyright Manchester Art Gallery
Image caption Ira Aldridge, stage name F.W. Keene, died in 1867

The UK's first black Shakespearean actor is to be honoured with the unveiling of a blue plaque in Coventry.

Ira Aldridge was given the job of manager at Coventry Theatre after impressing the people of the city with his acting during a tour in 1828.

The impression he made during his time there is credited with inspiring Coventry's petition to Parliament for the abolition of slavery.

His life, 150 years after his death, is described as "unbelievable but true".

Image copyright Tony Howard
Image caption He was first black person ever to run a British theatre and to portray Othello on stage

Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge moved to England aged 18 after he was beaten in racist attacks and the theatre he performed at was burnt down.

He began his UK career in London, famously playing Othello in Covent Garden, where he was "extremely well received" according to a critic from The Times.

The actor who overcame prejudice

Gradually he developed into other roles and, with the use of make-up, went on to play Richard III, Shylock, Iago and even King Lear and Macbeth.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ira Aldridge, seen here in character as Othello, was hugely popular in Europe and died in Poland

He toured the English provinces extensively and stayed in Coventry for a few months, during which time he gave a number of speeches on the evils of slavery. When he left, people inspired by his speeches went to the county hall and petitioned for its abolition.

Prof Tony Howard, from the University of Warwick, has been campaigning with the Belgrade Theatre for Aldridge's time in Coventry to be commemorated.

He said Aldridge "changed the climate of thinking" in Coventry, where there had previously been little interest in abolition.

Image copyright National Library of Wales
Image caption In an open letter to the people of Coventry, Aldridge wrote: "Being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy."

The plaque will be unveiled by Lord Mayor Councillor Tony Skipper in the Upper Precinct in the city centre, where thousands will see it every day.

Prof Howard said "nobody talks about Ira Aldridge's moment in Coventry" and people are often surprised when they hear the story. "It's unbelievable but it's true," he said.

He hopes that by placing the plaque at eye-level, more people will be engaged with the remarkable story.

He said: "What the plaque is saying is that this man achieved things that are hard for black people to achieve today."

Adrian Lester MBE played Ira Aldridge in Red Velvet, a play about his life. He said: "This is a fitting and just tribute to an incredible talent. For Ira to have achieved so much at a time when society thought so little, is a testament to his tenacity and hard work."

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