In 1824, a young, black New Yorker named Ira Aldridge set sail for England. Within 10 years, he was performing Shakespeare in London’s Covent Garden. By the time 20 more had passed, he had performed for royalty across Europe, made audiences laugh and weep, and been heralded one of the great actors of his age.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the slave trade flourished, free African Americans and their descendants still weren’t eligible for citizenship, and runaway slaves were supposed to be returned to their owners, no matter which state they were apprehended in.
Aldridge’s career as an actor was exceptional, and not just for a black actor at that time. He traveled farther, was seen by audiences in more countries, and won more medals, decorations, and awards than any other actor of his century. But, somehow, this 19th-century great slips under the radar. He seems to be too American to make it into British or European theatrical histories, and, because he performed almost exclusively in Europe, tends not to appear in American ones. For most of his career, Aldridge traveled from place to place, on short-term engagements that made it hard for him to build a reputation in any one spot. “As a luminary,” writes scholar Bernth Lindfors in the introduction to Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, “he was more a comet than a fixed star—here today, gone tomorrow—and as a consequence, he shines less brightly now.”
In addition to his career of rare achievement on the stage, Aldridge used his platform and status to fight slavery, even from across the Atlantic.