Ira Aldridge Biography

Theater Actor, Actor (c. 1807–1867)
Ira Aldridge was a 19th-century African-American actor who became a renowned interpreter of Shakespearean tragedy on the European stage.


Born on July 24, 1807, in New York City, Ira Aldridge acted with the African Grove Theatre before migrating overseas and making his London debut. Other roles followed in the British provinces, and Aldridge eventually became a renowned thespian in Europe, touring countries like Austria and Russia and earning the nickname "African Roscius." He also used his fame to call for slavery's end. He died on August 7, 1867, while in Poland.

Early Life

Born on July 24, 1807, in New York City, Ira Frederick Aldridge was the son of Lurona and Daniel Aldridge. The young Aldridge attended the African Free School and, in the early 1820s, began his acting career during his teens with the African Grove Theatre, also known as the African Theatre. Feeling that America wasn't a hospitable place for a black actor, however, he decided to seek his fortune elsewhere.

Career Abroad

Emigrating to England as a fellow actor's valet, Aldridge was able to find more creative opportunities, albeit with significant challenges. In 1825, Aldridge had a starring role as Oroonoko in The Revolt of Surinam in the Coburg Theatre. This fine performance, however, failed to launch a career for him on the London stage, with the actor facing racist rhetoric in the papers. Aldridge ended up spending years touring the United Kingdom, playing the title role in such Shakespearean works as Othello, Macbeth and Richard III.

A well-regarded actor, Aldridge was called the "African Roscius," after the legendary Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus. Aldridge returned to London to play Othello in 1833 when he was only 26 years old, taking over the role for famed actor Edmund Kean, who had recently passed away. Returning to regional theater, Aldridge continued to perform Shakespeare's works. Some of his performances included samplings from several plays, and he was known for portraying white characters.

Final Years

In 1852, Aldridge went on his first European tour. There he earned great acclaim for his performances. Five years later, Aldridge took the stage in St. Petersburg, Russia in a series of well-received shows. He spent little time in England, launching his last major tour of the United Kingdom in 1859.

Aldridge continued to act until the end of his life, earning a number of honors such as Switzerland's White Cross. He also staunchly spoke out against slavery, contributing financially to abolitionist causes and incorporating songs of freedom into his performances. 

Ira Aldridge died on August 7, 1867 in Lodz, Poland while touring. He had been twice married and left behind several children, including Luranah Aldridge, who later became an opera singer of some renown. 

Acclaimed Play

Biographies on the actor's life include a comprehensive 2011 two volume work by Berth Lindfors. And in 2012, the play Red Velvet debuted on the London stage, focusing on part of Aldridge's career. The acclaimed production, which made its way to New York, was written by Lolita Chakrabarti and starred her husband, actor Adrian Lester.  

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