Arts & Culture

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Gamut production highlights early black Shakespearean actor

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and WITF Host | Jan 28, 2016 6:41 PM

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In the 1820's Ira Aldridge was young, black and talented in New York City.  He had gotten the bug for being on stage by performing with The African Grove Theatre...the first resident African-American Theatre in the United States.

But the American civil war and the emancipation proclamation were still nearly 40 year away.  So at the age of 17 Ira Aldridge decided to emigrate to England, where slave trade had already been abolished, and opportunities for black actors were greater. 

Against all odds, he rose to become a highly acclaimed and popular Shakespearian actor, touring across Europe and Russia. 

 Actor Anthony Golden portrays Aldridge in the Gamut Theatre production of the play Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Golden says, " He is, in my opinion, the reason why all of us as African-American actors can act today. He started this trend that nobody thought was possible - an African-American speaking our words --Shakespearian words - with such articulation and diction. And yet, he is from African descent. Is that possible? Can that be done? Is that allowed? 


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Anthony Golden as Ira Aldridge


The play, Red Velvet, focuses on a dramatic event in Aldridge's life. In 1833, the famous actor Edmund Kean collapsed while playing Othello in London. Ira Aldridge stepped into the role and for two nights performed it in the most prestigious theatre of that day, the crown jewel of the theater world: Covent Garden. 

 Clark Nicholson,  Artistic Director of Gamut Theatre, who directed the production, described the audience reaction to Aldridge's performance as "stupendous". He says,  "Although the audiences loved it, the reviews, which are read verbatim in the play, are the most harsh, ugly, racist words that you could ever hear. They're really brutal and savage. And those reviews shut down the play." 

Aldridge had been scheduled to play the role for the entire run. But he was allowed only two performances. The theatre was shut down for the first time in its history until a new play could be mounted.

Nicholson says, "I think that always lived in his mind and haunted him. He had been up there  on top of Mount Olympus, and had grabbed the lightning--had caught it--and then was made to leave."

 Ira Aldridge would go on to become highly acclaimed playing title roles in Shakespeare. Where white actors of the day used dark makeup to play Othello, Aldridge used light-skinned greasepaint to play such roles as King Lear and Richard the Third. In later years as he became famous, he stopped using the makeup. And he became an outspoken advocate for abolishing slavery.

  Anthony Golden believes that Aldridge's success opened the way for other black actors. "He is the African-American actor who actually put us on the stage ...who actually showed us around the world that we can do this. We can be up here, and it's fine. Don't be ashamed because of your color. You can be like this." 

 Clark Nicholson is eager to tell his story. "Ninty-nine percent of people -black, white, red, yellow or green - don't know who this guy is. And that is a shame. It is a triumphant story for every human being. It deserves to be known." 

The opening weekend of Red Velvet was snowed out by the big storm, but there are two more weekends of performances, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.  and Sundays at 2:30 p.m., at the new Gamut Theatre in Harrisburg.






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