Ira Aldridge on stage

On the opening night of a production of “Othello” at the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre, a fellow actor gave John Douglas Thompson a book, “Shakespeare in Sable” by Erroll Hill.

“I started to read it, and I was fascinated,” he said. “There were so many African-American actors playing Shakespeare — not just Othello and Caliban but Prospero, Hamlet, Richard III. It made me feel part of a community. Before that I didn’t know what was out there — I had no examples of people to look to.”

On the cover of the book, a lean man with powerful shoulders beckons in a tunic and cloak. And so Thompson met Ira Aldridge, an international star of the 1830s.

“He’s considered the godfather of classical acting,” Thompson said, “not just the first black actor to play Othello in London but a great actor. He brought a sense of realism.”

He brought ideas far ahead of his time — a direct connection with the feeling and action in the play, a commitment to the text, the power of natural movement.

Following in his footsteps, Thompson — who earned an Obie award for his performance as Othello at Theatre for a New Audience in 2009 — will bring Aldridge to life this summer in Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox through Sept. 13.

Photo by Enrico Spada.

Photo by Enrico Spada.

Aldridge was born in New York City in July 1807 and grew up in Manhattan, watching plays at the African Grove Theatre at Bleeker and Mercer streets, where he saw James Hewlett perform Othello with the African Company, the first black American drama group. Aldridge taught himself the craft, Thompson said. His father sent him to the University of Glasgow to become a minister, and Aldridge left school for the stage. He came to England and played his first Othello at 17. He married at 18.

“He was a man,” even young, said director Daniela Varon.

She read “Shakespeare in Sable” as a teenager, she said, at the same age Aldridge played Othello for the first time, and she admired the courage of a 17-year-old leaving everything he knew to pursue his passion.

Aldridge toured England in the provinces, performing in regional shows. Later he would tour Europe for more than 30 years, playing King Lear, Shylock, MacBeth and more, and leading a revival of Shakespeare across the continent. He would become wealthy. Crowned heads of Europe would award him medals of honor.

But long before that, when he was 26, his life changed.

While England debated an act that would abolish slavery in the colonies, a celebrity, Edmund Kean, collapsed in a performance of Othello. And Aldridge had a chance to become the lead actor and a leading voice in a leading London theater — and to change acting itself.

“This moment in time, a turning point in his life, will define him,” Varon said.

Chakrabarti’s play focuses in on what could become his big break. He took a risk, Thompson said, and he must have known it. Taking on that role at that time, he took on a political role as well. The debate over slavery brought rioters into the streets. Many London newspapers had heavy financial backing from people who wanted slavery in the colonies, who made a profit from enterprises like sugar plantations — and they did not want audiences to see a black man performing, fully human on stage.

Newspapers ran crushing reviews, threatening the play, the theater, Aldridge’s career and, Thompson said, the lives of thousands of people this parliamentary act could touch.

“If he can’t get up on that stage, we lose the argument,” Thompson said, thinking of Aldridge’s fight to keep the play running. “… There’s too much riding on it. He’s fighting for his whole race.”

At the same time Aldridge drew standing ovations from his audiences and ardent support from actors, because he played what he felt. And that too was an act of revolution.

Acting in 19th-century England centered on gestures, Thompson said. The lines of the body became an expression of art, like a painting. The actors spoke in declamatory, stentorian language, and they addressed the audience — they were forbidden to look at each other. They felt, as the actress Ellen Tree argues in the play, that if they did the audience would not see or understand the action.

Thompson quotes Aldridge’s reply: “Yes, but if the passion isn’t simmering between us, they’ll feel nothing at all.”

“Ira brought a sense of fluidity with these postures and formal gestures, and movement, and emotion to the language,” he said.

He moved with the text and with the actors around him, connected and organic,  looking for the truth and the rhythms of the language.

“Eye-contact helped him to perform,” Thompson said, “and in his scenes with Ellen it brings out a whole new style. It must have been rare for a leading man to encourage an actress to look at him — it must have been shocking.”

It could have shocked people to see desire and anger and violence shown clearly, or to see Aldridge as Othello, or to see Ellen Tree as Desdemona at center stage.

Aldridge had a sense of democracy, Thompson said — he allowed the leading actress to experiment and make her own choices. That too was revolutionary.

“Lead actors would say Desdemona is this and that’s all she is,” Thompson said. “He says her feelings about Desdemona are as important as his about Othello. It’s liberating for her. She’s found an equal. …

“I’m surprised at how liberal he was as an actor.”

Aldridge went on to lead a revival of Shakespeare across Europe. He brought Shakespeare to many places that had never experienced the plays before, Thompson said, and he held audiences spellbound even when he performed in English and they did not speak it. In some places he also became their first contact with a black person.

“It must have been fascinating to bring this to people who would appreciate it and have a whole different view of the race he represents,” Thompson said. “He was bringing equality at the same time.”

He died two weeks before a U.S. tour would have brought him home for the first time since he left as a boy. He is buried in Poland, Varon said, in the town where he died, and a local actors’ union tends his grave. He has a plaque at Stratford-on-Avon, one of 33 actors honored. But few people know about him.

And she and Thompson want him known.

“A black man living in all parts of Europe, wealthy, the best-known black man in the Eastern [European] world — I don’t have a contemporary example relevant to his successes and his extraordinary life,” Thompson said. “You can look at Paul Robeson, Mohammed Ali … and what they accomplished in such difficult times, and they pale in comparison to him. He should be in our history books as one of our great icons, as someone we get inspiration from for his contributions to the world.”

A version of this story (updated here) ran first at the Arts Fuse. Many thanks to editor Bill Marx.

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