Out last fall from LEE & LOW BOOKS, Ira’s Shakespeare Dream is a picture book biography that tells the story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who defied convention and prejudice to become one of the most celebrated Shakespearean performers of his century. While much has changed since Ira’s time, the conversation around diversity at the Oscars reminds us that actors of color still struggle to find ample opportunities to practice their art.
We interviewed author Glenda Armand about why she chose to write a book on Ira Aldridge and how far we’ve come when it comes to diversity in the arts.
What drew you to Ira’s story? What about his story made you want to write it for children?
I came across Ira Aldridge when I was researching my first book, Love Twelve Miles Long. I was fascinated by his story and amazed that he was so little known. His life reminds me of the variety of experiences that people of African descent have had on this continent–before, during, and after the founding of the United States. There are so many stories to be told! Specifically, this is what drew me to Ira Aldridge:
- That he was born free in New York during the time of slavery. Most of the African Americans we know about who lived during this time were born slaves in the South. Ira’s story expands our understanding of African American history.
- That he attended the famous African Free School, which was founded in 1785 by the New York Manumission Society, an organization that advocated for the full abolition of African slavery. The Society’s members included the Founders, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Another notable alumnus of the African Free School is Dr. James McCune Smith, the first African American to become a university-educated physician.
- His story is unique, yet universal. How many people throughout history have gone against their parents wishes’ to follow their own dream?
- Finally, there is the Shakespeare angle. I loved Shakespeare long before I majored in English Lit in college. I was introduced to the Bard by my older sister, Jenny (who became a librarian). She used to entertain my younger siblings and me by reciting lines from Shakespeare. I can hear her, broom or mop in hand, bellowing, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me yours ears…”, “To be or not to be,” or “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
I thought of Jenny when I included the last two quotes in Ira’s Shakespeare Dream.
How important is it for parents to support their children’s interests? How do you think Ira’s story would be different if his father had supported his dream?
It is always important for parents to support their children. I think that Ira’s father believed he was doing what was best for his son when he encouraged Ira to become a preacher. His father was looking at the realities of life for African Americans in the early nineteenth century. And Ira might have had a good life, if he had followed his father’s wishes. What his father did not know was that Ira was destined for greatness.
What do you most admire about Ira Aldridge? Do you believe Ira is a relevant role model for young people today?
I admire Ira for knowing that, in this case, father did not know best, and for being strong and determined enough to follow his own dream. Ira had the self-confidence to blaze his own path. He did not let the lack of role models deter him. He worked hard, prepared himself for success, and was ready when the Wallack brothers gave him the break he needed.
I think Ira is a strong role model for young people today. He shows them that, despite life’s obstacles, they can follow their dream. We all face obstacles even though they may not be the ones that Ira faced. Young people can also follow Ira’s example by finding a way to use their talents and success to help others.
As a former teacher, which Shakespeare play is your favorite?
As a teacher, I would have to choose Romeo and Juliet. It is the play best known by young people. It is the one still being taught in most middle and high schools. Students readily identify with the two main characters. The plot is easily understood, and it is always fun to compare the original with various updated versions.
Though we have come a long way since Ira’s time, diversity in theater and screen time is still a topic of heated discussion today. Where do you think we’re at in this battle, and how far do you think we still need to go?
I tend to be optimistic. In theater, movies and literature, I want to see more good stories. That will necessarily include stories from people of all backgrounds.
We must take responsibility for our own success. Everyone faces obstacles. How we overcome those obstacles becomes part of our unique story. I believe that those who have talent, determination, discipline and patience will eventually succeed.
What we have today that Ira could not imagine, are people and companies like Lee and Low, whose mission is to produce work based on the experiences of people of diverse backgrounds. This does not mean that everything we submit will be accepted but it does mean that our work will be carefully considered. It means that we may be given advice and ideas to help us grow and improve our craft. This is a great time to be a story teller.
About the Book:
Ira’s Shakespeare Dream
by Glenda Armand, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Ages 7-13, 32 pages
Purchase a copy of the book here.