Ira Aldridge, 1807-1867: The African Roscius*

Beatles’ fans are generally hip to the figure of Pablo Fanque, black circus entrepreneur and accomplished acrobat.   It’s all laid out in the song and the poster.

Not a lot of contemporary posters for Ira Aldridge, whose stage career was a bit more upscale.  Certainly in his time he was better known.  Pable Fanque was a star of England.  Aldridge was an international star.

He was a New York native, son of free blacks and beneficiary of a classical education at the African Free School of New York.  He also spent time at the Park Theatre in lower Manhattan and was soon working at African Grove.

In a path that became to all too familiar (think Josephine Baker and Nina Simone among others) , he thought he would find more opportunity in Europe than in America.  He was right.  He attended the University of Glasgow for a period, but was soon back on the stage.  At first assumed to be a novelty – fancy an actor who could play black without burnt cork! – Aldridge tended to be somewhat typecast:  (The Ethiopian, or the Quadroon of the Mango Grove; The Negro’s Curse; The Death of Cristophe, King of Hayti). Continue reading