Who Is Ira Aldridge?

Our new children’s book, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, tells the incredible story of Ira Aldridge. When we’ve shown this book to readers, we get one of two responses:
1) “I’ve never heard of Ira Aldridge.”
2) “You have a book about Ira Aldridge??! That’s so wonderful!”

The truth is, bringing Ira’s story to new readers is one of our great joys as a publisher. His is a story of phenomenal talent and determination, of someone who was truly born to do what he did. Too often, history has let the achievements of black people fall through the cracks–especially when they take place outside the narrative of slavery and civil rights. If you look at the African American biographies that appear most often, so many of them are focused on names we already know: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass. While it is important to remember these people and their achievements, acknowledging the contributions of black people in other arenas–art, music, science, and in this case, Shakespearean acting–is equally important. 

So: who was Ira Aldridge?

Ira Aldridge was born July 27, 1807, in New York City. As a child, he attended the African Free School, a school established for the children of free African Americans and slaves. During that time, Aldrige would observe plays from high up in the balcony of the Park Theatre.

ira spread
Young Ira at the Park Theatre (image from Ira’s Shakespeare Dream)

Ira always loved Shakespeare. His acting career began in his teens, where he acted at the African Grove Theatre, the first resident African American theatre in the United States. Ira dreamed of performing Shakespeare one day on the stage of the Park Theatre. But black actors were not welcome there.

from Ira's Shakespeare Dream
from Ira’s Shakespeare Dream

Ira’s father, a church minister, tried to dissuade his son from pursuing acting. He encouraged him to become a minister or teacher, but Ira was determined to pursue his dream. At the age of 17, Ira headed to England as a valet for another actor to try his hand at acting. There, he found work running errands for small theaters and became an understudy for other actors.

When Ira finally got his chance to debut, his performance was met with mixed reviews. While some praised his acting, others did not like seeing a black actor onstage playing “white roles.” But Ira was not discouraged. He worked hard, studied acting, and gradually became known for his talented performances in a variety of roles. Later on, he toured United Kingdom, spending many years performing the lead roles in Othello, Macbeth and Richard III. Ira was most famous for his role as the titular Othello, which he first played at the age of 26. He was the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage.

Image of Ira Aldridge in a production of “Titus Andronicus”

Despite the fame he gained, Ira never forgot the plight of the enslaved African Americans in the United States. He would sometimes come out at the close of his performances to sit on the edge of the stage, preaching to the audience about the injustice of slavery. He used his performances to raise money to send to abolitionists fighting to end slavery in the United States.

Ira Aldridge toured around Europe and earned great acclaim for his performances. In 1858, the duke of Saxe-Meiningen granted him knighthood. He is the only African American actor listed among the 33 actors honored with plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. The theater at Howard University in Washington, DC is named after him.

Ira's Shakespeare Dream

Learn more about Ira Aldridge in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream, written by Glenda Armand and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Additional resources:

Read an interview with author Glenda Armand
View and download the free Teacher’s Guide

5 thoughts on “Who Is Ira Aldridge?”

  1. I was so happy to see the tweet about this book! I actually do know who Ira Aldridge is. I was lucky enough to be involved with a theatre company that produced one of Aldridge’s plays The Black Doctor Off-Off-Broadway way back in the 1990’s.

    1. That is so neat, Elizabeth! I will have to look into the play to learn more about it. I actually didn’t realize that he also wrote/adapted plays, in addition to acting. Thank you for sharing!

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