THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
The Society's January event dealt with the life and achievement of Britain's great black actor of the 19th century Ira Aldridge. It was intriguingly linked with our Christmas lecture not only because both had a strong performance element but in that the comic role of Mungo in Isaac Bickerstaffe's The Padlock, which was one of Charles Dibdin's popular successes, was also played by Aldridge and considered by some to be his best role, even better than his Othello. (He habitually played both roles on the first evening of provincial engagements to impress with his versatility.) Dibdin, of course, in painted blackface, of which Aldridge had no need.
Though born in the United States, a fact which he suppressed when he first appeared on the British stage, he became a British citizen and married an Englishwoman. His era may seem long ago but is closely linked with our own, for, as Chair Dr Valerie Lucas mentioned in introducing the evening, that fine modern British actor Earl Cameron, when he first appeared here, went to a voice coach who was none other than Ira Aldridge's daughter Amanda.
The presentation began with historian Oku Ekpenyon, who has been the guiding force behind the events which have commemorated the bicentenary of Aldridge's birth during 2007, championing his recognition as an important character in both black and theatre history.
She has already been largely responsible for the hanging of a portrait of Aldridge in the Old Vic, where he made one of his earliest London appearances, and for the placing of a Blue Plaque, which she herself unveiled. On the house he bought and where he lived in (appropriately) Hamlet Road near the Crystal Palace. As part of the bicentenary project she mounted a celebratory performance at the Old Vic and has produced an educational pack for schools (distributed by CETTIE).
After some problems with the amplification system, set to match the later part of the evening, Oku showed she had no need of a microphone or to consult her script s she told us of the struggle to convince Kevin Spacey and the management of the Old Vic that Aldridge should be commemorated in the theatre where he appeared as a young man. After the celebration of the placing of a copy of a portrait donated by the National Portrait Gallery in the front of house she was offered the theatre to present a performance for which she brought together modern black actors in a programme that centred on Lonne Elder's play about Aldridge Splendid Mummer and included readings of contemporary reviews and other related material and Earl Cameron remembering his encounter with Amanda.
Oku's passion for the reclamation of Black history and the recognition of Black contribution to British history was apparent in everything she said and clearly gained the support of her audience. She has not abandoned her work on Aldridge but is now also actively engaged as Chair of Memorial 2007 whose purpose is to erect a permanent memorial to enslaved Africans and their descendants in London's Hyde Park. This project that has been endorsed by UNESCO, who say there should be similar memorials in Paris and other European cities.
Oku was followed by actor, director, writer and founder of CETTIE, Shango Baku, who played Aldridge at the Vic, giving a vivid performance of an extract from Elder's play. This included his account of his first meeting with his first wife Margaret, and Englishwoman 18 years his senior, and described the forming of his own troupe of English actors to tour in continental Europe and later tours playing in English as a guest star with German and other foreign companies. It worked in extracts from Othello and the role of Chistophe in J.H. Amherst's The Death of Christophe, King of Hayti, a performance which led to the ruler of Haiti bestowing upon him the first of the many awards which he received from the kings and courts of many countries.
This taste of what an Aldridge performance might have been like, though it was not offered as a recreation, was followed by black theatre researcher Leon Robinson. This was not the American actor Leon Preston Robinson, but the British-born dancer and choreographer whose interest in Black theatre history got a kick start when he met founder members of Berto Pasuka's 1940s dance company Les Ballet Négres. He went on to set up Positive Steps, both as a production company and to archive source material on black artists in British culture.
Leon began by acknowledging his own indebtedness to the Society for a research grant he received a few years ago enabling him to make a trip for archival research in the United States. He went on to make a confess that, just before leaving for the States, with his air ticket and money for his hotel bill in his pocket, he came across some original Ira Aldridge posters. They were far more expensive than he could afford but he could not resist securing them for Positive Steps' collection. Banking on finding a friend's floor to sleep on in New York, instead of paying a hotel bill, he used STR's grant to buy the posters - which he later passed round the audience to show that it was money well spent.
On getting to the Schonberg Library in New York, where he planned to do some of his research, he saw a bust in their reception that he immediately recognised it as Aldridge. 'Do you know who it is?' asked one of the staff. 'I know, he said, and I've got two of his posters in my bag!' The Schonberg offered to double whatever he had paid to get them from him but he refused - they were British theatre history and they were going back to Britain.
Leon spoke of his he was especially concerned that young British black should be aware of the contribution of other blacks to our society. They needed role models of Black achievers, and in these days of mobile phones, Face Book we have to find lively ways of engaging the younger generation. At the Old Vic, among other places he had mounted an exhibition of posters and images of Aldridge but the younger generation often do not immediately respond to the prints and posters that historians may find exciting so had made a documentary presenting this material. This was the next item on the programme.
The Unpainted Moor offers a lively montage of images with narration and an actor in close up speaking Aldridge's words. We saw playbills, prints, paintings and photo images of Aldridge in numerous roles, including some of those, such as Shylock and Lear that he played in white-face.
In conclusion Leon said that when he comes to a meeting of the Society for Theatre Research he feels among family, mentioning some committee members who have helped or guided him in his research, a touching reminder of just how important the Society can be in encouraging young researchers and enthusiasts, especially those outside formal academia, whether their interests are in past or in contemporary theatre.
The programme ended with the showing of another film about Aldridge, The Black Tragedian, made by actor Joseph Mydell, RSC and National theatre actor and recently seen in The Last Confession. It had been hoped that he would have been able to introduce the film with a performance piece has written The Bard in Black, but he is in the middle of rehearsals for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Lyric Hammersmith and was unable to be there. His film, shot when he was with the RSC and using actors then with that company, gave an interestingly different overview of the life of the African Roscius which complemented other parts of the evening.
The event was rounded off by a lively question and answer session and discussion from the floor which brought up the subject of his second marriage and his many children. Amanda had no descendants but one son emigrated to Australia and there may be further family surviving there. It would be interesting to find out. Aldridge is buried where he died, at Lodz in Poland, Amanda in London in an unmarked grave. From the floor Hazel Waters, author of the recently published Racism on the Victorian Stage told us of her firmly held, but not yet positively proved, belief that the savage mauling Aldridge got from many of the London critics, despite his obvious success with audiences, was in large measure due to opposition to the anti-slavery campaign and money paid by the slavers' lobby to certain newspapers. This opposition may well be the reason why engagements at the Patent theatres were few and curtailed and he was never given the critical acclaim in London that he received in the capitals and courts of Europe.
If you hold any Aldridge material that might throw more light upon his life and work the participants in the evening would be delighted to hear from you, especially if it throws light on what performance texts he used or how he played his roles.
As usual discussion continued over coffee afterwards.
The Society would like to thank all the contributors to the evening and those organisations and websites who helped us promote the event, especially Mia Morris of Wellplaced Consultancy and Barry Burke of Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Enquiries concerning The Unpainted Moor video should be made to Positive Steps, regarding copies of the teaching pack to CETTIE.
Forthcoming Events Index
Email: CETTIE (Cultural Exchange Through Theatre in Education)
Email: Memorial 2007 (Enslaved Africans Memorial)
7th February 2008