Home Arts & Culture REVIEW: Against Prejudice – Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828

REVIEW: Against Prejudice – Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828

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At the height of the fight against slavery, as white brutality toward other races became increasingly mixed with public outrage, something remarkable happened right here in Coventry: a young American actor called Ira Aldridge was briefly installed as manager of the local theatre. He was black. And as his tenure began, he wrote an open letter to the people of the city. He desired, he said, “only to be judged by his actions” and placed his faith in “that discrimination and generosity which appreciates endeavour and rewards effort.”

Against Prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828, a new theatrical work premiered at the Belgrade Theatre on Thursday as part of the City of Culture 2021 bid, lifts the lid on this until-now-largely-forgotten chapter of the city’s history. Recreations of Aldridge’s actual performances by respected Shakespearian actors Rakie Ayola, Matt Costain and Ray Fearon were interspersed with news reports from the period and performances of scenes from Thomas Morton’s 1816 melodrama The Slave by members of Belgrade Black Youth Theatre.

Fleeing discrimination in the US theatre, Aldridge had arrived in Britain in 1824. The following year saw him play Othello at an east London venue in what was probably the first British interpretation of the role by a black actor. But prejudice persisted. On his arrival in Coventry, he was originally billed as “a most extraordinary novelty, a man of colour”.

Nominated as manager of the Coventry Theatre by its dying owner, it’s a measure of Aldridge’s flair and professionalism that in just a few short months he transformed its ailing fortunes, engaging new talent and insisting that performances started on time. The local press reacted warmly, assessing Aldridge on his merits, just as he had wanted. So while there was praise for both his managerial acumen and his acting, his failure to employ better musicians was greeted with rather less enthusiasm.

As an actor, Aldridge spent his life speaking the words of others. And even the supposedly ‘anti-slavery’ theatre of his day often measured the worth of black people by how closely their behaviour reflected white ruling-class values. But as a black man making his way in a white man’s world, he understood more than most, perhaps, that true freedom is the freedom to be yourself.

And so it is his own words that, invested with new relevance by recent events, reach out to us most poignantly in this City of Sanctuary. In the same letter quoted above, he also confessed that he “might have feared that, unknown and unfriended, [I] had little claim to public notice – did [I] not feel that being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy”. In Coventry he found a city willing to take him to its heart and give him a chance.

Ira Aldridge went on to have a long and distinguished career on the stage. Against Prejudice gave us a fascinating glimpse into the life of this complex and courageous man and the tumultuous, conflicted times he lived in. As well as restoring him to his rightful place in Coventry’s cultural heritage, Thurday’s performance also marked the inauguration of a campaign to erect a plaque to remember his work and act as an inspiration to others. As Professor Tony Howard of Warwick University remarked before the performance began “If Ira Aldridge could do what he did then, what can’t we do now?”

Summary
Against Prejudice gave us a fascinating glimpse into the life of this complex and courageous man and the tumultuous, conflicted times he lived in. As well as restoring him to his rightful place in Coventry’s cultural heritage, Thurday’s performance also marked the inauguration of a campaign to erect a plaque to remember his work and act as an inspiration to others.
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