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Aldridge, Ira (1807-1867)

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Ira Frederick Aldridge was the first African American actor to achieve success on the international stage, performing before Kings and Queens all over Europe, becoming known as the preeminent Shakespearean actor and tragedian of the 19th Century. He was born in Maryland. His father, a lay preacher, sent him to the African Free School in New York. Young Ira was attracted to the African Grove Theatre, the first ever black theatre founded by William Henry Brown in 1821. He apprenticed under James Hewlett, the first African American Shakespearean actor. Realizing he could not achieve success in the United States, young Ira Aldridge worked his passage to Liverpool, England as a ship’s steward.

From the mid 1820s to 1860 Ira Aldridge slowly forged a remarkable career. He performed in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Bath, and Bristol in King Lear, Othello, MacBeth, and The Merchant of Venice. He also freely adapted classical plays, changing characters, eliminating scenes and installing new ones, even from other plays. In 1852 he embarked on a series of continental tours that intermittently would last until the end of his life. He performed his full repertoire in Prussia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Hungary and Poland. Some of the honors he received include the Prussian Gold Medal for Arts and Sciences from King Frederick, the Golden Cross of Leopold from the Czar of Russia, and the Maltese Cross from Berne, Switzerland. Mr. Aldridge died while on tour in Lodz, Poland.

Sources:
Anthony D. Hill, An Historical Dictionary of African American Theater (Prevessin, France: Scarecrow Press, 2007).

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