Ira Aldridge was one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. Born in New York, Aldridge achieved his greatest fame in Europe, where he found professional opportunities that did not exist for black actors in the United States. This 1857 playbill shown below advertises an engagement by Aldridge at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, England, in which he performed three roles from his extensive repertoire, Othello, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and Gambia in The Slave.

A playbill for Ira Aldridge

A playbill for Ira Aldridge in Othello and The Slave at the Theatre Royal.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In the early 1820s, Aldridge performed in New York with William Brown’s African Theatre, the first African American theater company. He then journeyed to England, where in 1833 he became the first black actor to portray Othello on the London stage. Aldridge spent the rest of his life touring Great Britain, Europe, and Russia, and became a British citizen in 1863. He used his position on the stage to speak out against slavery and advocate for racial equality.

True feeling and just expression are not confined to any clime or colour. Ira Aldridge Actor and advocate for racial justice
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