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Ira Aldridge: The First African American Othello

2312 words - 9 pages

Many actors throughout the centuries have performed William Shakespeare’s Othello, both on stage and in film. A few famous actors to have played Othello include Richard Burbage, Edmund Kean, Ira Aldridge, Orson Welles, James Earl Jones, and Laurence Fishburne (Arogundade). Othello was described as a Moor by Shakespeare, despite this, Othello was usually performed by white actors that would wear blackface makeup. Not only were women not allowed to perform in theatre, neither were African-Americans. However, one of the first African-Americans to perform on stage was Ira Aldridge. Ira Aldridge was the first African-American man to perform as Othello, presumably making Aldridge one of the most iconic actors to have portrayed Othello. Although there have been dozens of famous portrayals of Othello, Ira Aldridge was one of the most illustrious actors to have played Othello because of his early life, previous acting jobs, and the risks he took to play Othello, in spite of how critics reacted in his time.
Ira Aldridge’s early life is one of the reasons why Aldridge was such an important actor. Aldridge was born in New York sometime in 1807 (Evans). When he was a teenager, Aldridge acquired his education at one of New York’s African Free Schools, earning an education most African-Americans did not receive in Aldridge’s time (Evans). In essence, the extra schooling Ira Aldridge received helped him to advance his career, because most African-Americans at the time were still working in low ranking jobs and did not get the opportunity to further themselves as Aldridge did. Aldridge went even further to get into an acting career. The first taste of theatre Ira Aldridge got that sparked his interest was at The African Grove Theatre performing Shakespeare’s Romeo and Rolla (Evans). This interest in theatre caused Aldridge to push the boundaries of race, encouraging him to venture to Britain to improve his chances of becoming a well-known actor. “Ira Aldridge was one of the first actors of African descent to appear on British and other European stages, and he was the first to achieve widespread fame and recognition” (Evans). In other words, Aldridge’s drive and pursuit to act caused him to push back against the hardships he faced being a black performer, and against the odds became a well-known performer in Britain. “Although he is little known currently in the United States, [Ira Aldridge] was a celebrated Shakespearean, most notably in the roles of Othello, Macbeth, Shylock, and Lear” (Evans). In short, Aldridge was a famous actor throughout Europe, but was not recognized in the United States, because he continued to perform around Europe, but never returned to America to perform, therefore did not receive much recognition. Aldridge detested his American nationality, he went as far as to leave New York and become an official British citizen in 1863, never to return to America (Evans). Aldridge also, “…learned to speak English with the semblance of an...

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