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Forgotten star honoured

RECOGNITION: A portrait of Ira Aldridge

A BLUE plaque to commemorate the achievements of one of the first black stars of British theatre has been unveiled in Coventry.

Ira Aldridge, who was born in New York in 1807, made his career after 1824 largely on the London stage and in Europe, especially in Shakespearean roles.

Aldridge came to England to escape racism in America, after he was savagely beaten for daring to act in Shakespeare.

In the UK, he became the first black actor to play Othello. In 1828, when slavery was still legal throughout Britain’s colonies, Aldridge became manager of the Coventry Theatre. The performances and plays he presented led the city to petition Parliament to abolish slavery.

Last week, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge’s death, the plaque, inset below, was unveiled at the city centre’s Lower Precint shopping centre, which is the site of the theatre he once ran. It was unveiled by the Lord Mayor of Coventry Tony Skipper, on Thursday August 3.

Professor Tony Howard, head of Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare project, which examines the involvement of non-white actors and directors in the performance and re-interpretation of the playwright’s works, led the campaign to install the plaque. The campaign was launched last November with a torch-lit procession, after Professor Howard gave a talk on Aldridge and Earl Cameron laid flowers on the site of the old Coventry Theatre. He said:

TRIBUTE: Earl Cameron CBE lays flowers in honour of Ira Aldridge

“There have been so many supporters of the campaign, with many saying to us, ‘Why haven’t Ira Aldridge’s achievements been widely recognised?’.

“A month ago, the Arts Council England admitted that not enough has been done to open up theatres to diversity, especially at the level of leadership. The Ira Aldridge story reminds us of what can be done.”


Howard continued:

“His importance wasn’t only as an actor. The timing of his achievements when slavery was being abolished was proof of how wonderfully brilliant persons of African descent can be as artists. When he joined the Coventry Theatre it was a laughing stock, but by the time he left it attracted some of the greatest acting talent in Britain. The plaque will be a symbol of what can be achieved in terms of diversity and from foreign talent.”

Professor Howard believes a statue could be erected for Aldridge in the future.

Lolitta Chakrabarti, who wrote the award-winning play Red Velvet, depicting Aldridge’s life, believes the plaque will prove inspirational. Speaking to The Voice, the writer and actor said:

HISTORY: The blue plaque in Coventry, unveiled in honour of Ira Aldridge

“Ira Aldridge has been denied his place in history for long enough. A blue plaque will salute his extraordinary achievements and will not only inspire black actors, but those who are under-privileged. Ira made his opportunities and become an artistic director of a theatre at such a young age; something which was almost unimaginable at the time.”

She added:

“Today, black and Asian actors are often marginalised, but a blue plaque to commemorate Aldridge’s achievements will convey the message, ‘I’m not alone in carving out my journey and with effort and talent, I can achieve my goals.’”

Actor Adrian Lester, who starred as Aldridge in Red Velvet, has described the actor as “a one-man case for the abolition movement and a pioneer” for black actors.

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