Thursday, July 24, 2008

Happy Birthday Ira

I rediscovered Ira Aldridge when I got back into Shakespeare. My friend Neo had pushed and prodded me to go to my first Shakespeare audition in years. After that, I got hooked. While going on auditions, I found myself part of the few actors of color at the calls. I wasn't discouraged, I wanted to look into the history of actors of African descent who did Shakespeare. Then I remembered my old friend Ira Aldridge.

Now, your saying who is Ira Aldridge? Ira was born in 1807 right here in New York City. When he was a teenager, he got bitten by the acting bug. He had his first chance to perform at the African Grove Theatre which is said to be the first Black theater in America. It was created by William Brown and James Hewlett to provide a creative place for African Americans to perform. The theatre only lasted six years, after finally being burned in 1826. The theatre had gotten strong opposition from white audiences who felt African Americans had no right to do theater let alone Shakespeare!

Ira left his home country and went to Europe to find a better life as an actor. He studied at the University Of Glasgow in Scotland in the late 1820's. While at school, he continued to act. He finally got to perform at Convent Garden in London in 1833 as Othello. Audiences reaction was a mixture of love and hatred for Ira. Still he continued on and was able to travel all around Europe doing what he loved best. He performed as Othello, Aaron the Moor, King Lear, Macbeth, and Shylock.

Ira as he got older became embraced by audiences from diverse countries such as Germany, Russia and Poland. He became a British citizen in 1863 and was eventually Knighted. The first African American to have that honor. By the time of his death in 1867 in Poland, he had received numerous awards for his acting. He left behind a wife and five children as well.

For me, Ira is a hero of mine. He shows what is possible even when so much is stacked against you. When I audition or perform Shakespeare. I think of Ira. I feel I stand in his footsteps when I take to the stage. I wish someone in Hollywood would do a story on Ira's life. His story needs to be told. He is a pioneer and should be remembered more than he is now. So I send much love and hugs to you, Ira Aldridge. Happy Birthday and you are not forgotten.

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