Black History Month launched by Lolita Chakrabarti
Wednesday morning saw the official launch of Black History Month at Sydenham High, with a fascinating assembly by Lolita Chakrabarti on the subject of Ira Aldridge.
As a RADA-qualified stage and screen actress and writer Lolita developed a passion for this previously forgotten actor and set about researching him for over 20 years. She produced a play about his life entitled Red Velvet, which premiered in 2012, and she explained that he should be considered one of the most important actors in British theatre’s history. The play won her the Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright at the 2012 Evening Standard Awards, Most Promising Playwright at the Critics Circle Awards and the AWA Award for Arts and Culture in 2013. Red Velvet was also nominated for an Olivier Award in 2013 and Adrian Lester was nominated for an Olivier in 2016 for his portrayal of Ira Aldridge. He said of the actor:
For Ira to have achieved so much at a time when society thought so little, is a testament to his tenacity and hard work.
As the UK’s first black Shakespearean actor he was honoured in 2017 with the unveiling of a blue plaque in Coventry, the city where he had been manager at Coventry Theatre after impressing the people of the city with his acting during a tour in 1828 aged just 21. The impression he made during his time there is credited with inspiring Coventry’s petition to Parliament for the abolition of slavery.
Lolita told us about his life story, from his humble beginnings in America in 1807 to his travels to the UK given the difficulties for him being a black actor during the time of slavery, and on to his many travels throughout Europe. She described his profound impact on reviewers as a phenomenal actor but explained that he was written out of history because of the hostile environment that he was performing in.
Outside of London, he played to crowded houses, but was boycotted by the West End stage. Undeterred by the hostility he faced, he became the first black actor to perform at Covent Garden, playing the role of Othello for two nights. Sadly he was hounded by a racist campaign and it is thought that the theatre reviewers were bribed to tarnish his reputation. He never performed at Covent Garden again and, in 1852, Aldridge and his family sailed for Europe.
After his death in Poland in 1867, he was given a state funeral – such was his standing in the community across Europe. Lolita also told us that he lived on Hamlet Road in Crystal Palace with his wife and children and that his youngest daughter, Amanda, gave elocution lessons to Paul Robeson in 1930 when he was preparing for his first appearance as Othello in London.
To find out more about this fascinating man please visit the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s online exhibition.