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Ira Aldridge - the UK's first Black Shakespearean actor

Updated: Jan 31, 2023

Ira Frederick Aldridge was born on 24 July 1807 in New York City to Reverend Daniel and Luranah (also spelled Lurona) Aldridge.

At the age of 13, Aldridge went to the African Free School in New York City, established by the New York Manumission Society for the children of free enslaved African American and other Black heritage peoples.

His first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the African Grove Theatre troupe. It was founded and managed by William Henry Brown and James Hewlett, and was the first resident

African American theatre in the United States. After the troupe was forced to close by an intense racist campaign, Aldridge packed his bags in 1824 and made his way to England.

He made his debut acting appearance at London’s East End Royalty Theatre in May 1825. As his career grew, his performances of Shakespeare's classics eventually met with critical acclaim and he subsequently became the manager of Coventry's Theatre Royal.

In 1850, he published his autobiography Memoir and Theatrical Career of Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius. In it, he detailed aspects of both his personal and professional life, describing his voyages across the country: 'acting in succession at Brighton, Chichester, Leicester, Liverpool, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Exeter, Belfast and so on, returning to London after a lapse of seven years...'

Aldridge spent much of the 1850s on the Continent, touring the Austro-Hungarian empire, Germany, Prussia, Switzerland, Poland and eventually travelling to Russia in 1858 where he was well received. Upon returning to England in the 1860s, he applied for British citizenship.

He married two times, first to Margaret Gill in 1825 and after her death to the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt. Together they had four children, two of whom, Luranah and Amanda, became professional operatic singers.

By the time of his death in 1867 in Lodz, Poland, Aldridge was an acclaimed and award-winning stage actor and the most visible Black figure in Europe. He had appeared on stage in more than 250 theatres across Britain and Ireland, and more than 225 theatres in Europe.

In 2017, a blue plaque dedicated to Aldridge was unveiled in Coventry by actor Earl Cameron who had been trained by Aldridge's daughter, the opera singer Amanda Aldridge (1866–1956).

Aldridge is also the only actor of African-American descendent honoured with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


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