In 1824 an ambitious teenage actor fled to England from his native New York where he had been beaten up once too often. He built a career here, being billed as ‘a Most Extraordinary Novelty, a Man of Colour’. What audiences encountered, however, was not the expected comedy of a simpleton mangling the Bard. They got instead an actor of thrilling charisma and deep natural ability.
Ira Aldridge soon became the first black actor to play Othello, taking over the part from the brandy-sodden genius Edmund Kean, who died mid-run due to what one obituary called his ‘vortex of dissipation’. Thanks to a slew of highly prejudiced reviews in London, Ira became a classic example of a tour de force who was forced to tour.
He expanded his repertoire with Shylock, Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Macbeth, and the wonderful Oroonoko — a dramatisation of Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an enslaved African prince. He was soon dubbed ‘the African Roscius’ after the legendary Roman actor, although Roscius was born a slave, Aldridge a poor but free man.
Coventry, a proudly anti-slavery city, embraced him and gave the 20-year-old actor the keys to the theatre, which he ran brilliantly for a few months. Last month, 150 years after his death, a memorial plaque was put up where the city’s blitzed theatre once stood. The guest of honour at the ceremony was the Bermudan actor Earl Cameron, CBE, 100 years old. Far from drooling in a care home, Cameron is hot property and regularly on the phone to his agent, having made a recent and triumphant Hollywood comeback in the blockbuster films Inception and The Interpreter.
His screen debut was in the 1951 Docklands heist film Pool of London. It was the first British film to depict interracial love and one of a series of fascinating pictures that Cameron featured in and that shone a light on the murky new subject of racial politics.