BBC Radio 4 Extra, 6 July 2013
First broadcast in 2009, this
documentary traced the life and career of the African-American actor Ira Aldridge (1807-67), who defied existing prejudices
to become one of the greatest Shakespearean performers of his day.
Presented by Kwame Kwei-Armah with contributions from numerous Shakespearean scholars and
theatre historians, as well as actors such as Lenny Henry, this programme showed how Aldridge had to reinvent himself in order
to succeed. Although born in New York, he sometimes attributed his place to Senegal, so as to emphasize his "blackness"
- read "strangeness" - compared to his fellow Euro actors. Nonetheless, he still struggled to survive in a context where
African-Americans were inevitably characterized as second class citizens, "niggers" who did not deserve to occupy the stage
except in stereotypical roles such as minstrels.
Aldridge had a tough time reaching the top; when no one would employ him directly, he formed
his own company that spent much of its time touring the English regions. His reputation was made in Europe rather than
the United Kingdom or the United States; he is buried in Lodz, Poland, where he was due to give a performance.
Aldridge's life is significant,
as it shows how African-American performers were "othered" a hundred and fifty years ago. Times might have changed,
but the prejudices still remain. The programme offered an object lesson in how to achieve success against the