A BLUE plaque in Coventry city centre is being unveiled today in tribute to African-American actor and anti-slavery pioneer Ira Aldridge – one of the city’s greats who died 150 years ago.
Aldridge is still considered one of the greatest figures in both black history and the history of theatre.
The Lord Mayor Tony Skipper and 99-year-old actor Earl Cameron CBE will unveil the commemorative plaque, which also recognises Aldridge’s important links with the city.
In 1828, in the age of slavery, Aldridge became manager of the Coventry Theatre – the first black person ever to run a British theatre.
His performances and the plays he presented led the city to petition Parliament to abolish slavery, when he was only 20.
The ceremony marks the 150th anniversary of his death.
The unveiling takes place in the Lower Precinct – the location of his long-since demolished theatre – to be followed by a reception at the Belgrade Theatre, which hosted a drama-documentary about Aldridge last year.
That documentary telling Aldridge’s story, alongside discussions with historians and performers, will be revived at a special anniversary event on September 19 at Shakespeare’s Globe in London – called Against Prejudice: A Celebration of Ira Aldridge.
In an open letter to the people of Coventry, Ira Aldridge stated his belief that ‘Being a foreigner and a stranger are universal passports to British sympathy.’
Promotional material for the events states: “He came to England to escape racism in America (he had been savagely beaten for daring to act in Shakespeare) only to encounter prejudice once again.
“But he persevered against all odds, performed for the crowned heads of Europe, and has become an inspirational figure for artists from Paul Robeson to Adrian Lester, who recently played Aldridge in Lolita Chakrabarti’s drama Red Velvet.”
Lolita Chakrabarti said of today’s event: “It is so unbelievably gratifying to see Aldridge get his recognition at last.”
Guest of Honour at the unveiling, Bermudan film star Mr Cameron CBE (Inception, Thunderball, The Interpreter) was trained by Ira Aldridge’s daughter Amanda.
He has been a key part of the campaign to honour Ira. He will be 100 on August 8.
The campaign to install a plaque was launched last November when, in a torchlit procession, Earl Cameron laid flowers on the site of Aldridge’s long-lost theatre.
Professor Tony Howard, of Warwick University’s Multicultural Shakespeare project which has organised the events, said: “It was obvious there had to be a permanent memorial.
“The building Aldridge managed was demolished long ago, and the Blitz even destroyed the streets around it.
“So the plaque marking the site will be in the heart of modern Coventry, in the Precinct. Every day hundreds of shoppers will be reminded of a great African American and of the city’s openness to ‘foreigners and strangers’.”
Speaking about Ira Aldridge and his memories of his daughter Amanda Ira Aldridge, Earl Cameron said: “Although I had done quite a lot in the theatre, I had not done anything really outstanding or demanding as an actor.
“By chance, I was introduced by one of the cast to a lovely lady, Ms Amanda Ira Aldridge, a very renowned speech therapist. She was in her late seventies at the time.
“I started to take elocution lessons and she helped me greatly. Her father had become a great actor; he played many of the great Shakespearean roles, Lear, Othello of course, and Macbeth. Yet there is very little to read about him. It’s a pity.”