Ira Aldridge was never content to play into anyone’s view of black people. And in the height of minstrelsy, Aldridge was competing directly with black and white minstrel groups. Aldridge sought to challenge the perception of black people that white people accepted. Following a performance of Othello or Oronooko, Ira would perform a farce. Since the audience had just witnessed Aldridge’s masterful performance in a somber role, they knew that Aldridge was acting, not representing racial character. When Aldridge would perform villains, they would be burdened by racial prejudice or societal construction. This had the benefit of humanizing the villain as well as giving a relatable experience of oppression.
Performing in Britain during the height of the abolitionist movement, Aldridge made a practice of addressing the audience on the closing of the final night to campaign and advocate for the abolitionist cause.
During his performance of Shylock from Merchant of Venice, Aldridge was understood as creating a comparative study in racial adversity. A Russian critic writes, “Ira Aldridge is a mulatto born in America and feels deeply the insults levelled at people of another colour by people of a white colour in the New World. In Shylock he does not see particularly a Jew, but a human being in general, oppressed by the age-old hatred shown towards people like him, and express ing this feeling with wonderful power and truth. . . . His very silences speak.”¹
Aldridge was forgotten in Europe quickly after his death, but the African-American community saw him as a legendary figure. After his death, many black actors formed Ira Aldridge Tribute Troupes. One of the more famous was the Ira Aldridge Troupe in Philadelphia, a minstrelsy troop that satirized Irish white men.²
Ira Aldridge was a man ahead of his time and in every way a master-actor in Shakespearean tragedy as well as melodrama. His challenge of the preconceptions of the day and his unquenchable ambition made his impact long-lasting and inspirational for abolition, black theater, and civil rights as a whole.
- Marshall, Herbert, and Mildred Stock. 1958. Ira Aldridge: The Negro Tragedian. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
- Shalom, Jack. “The Ira Aldridge Troupe: Early Black Minstrelsy in Philadelphia.” African-American Review 28.4 (1994): 653–658