Ira Frederick Aldridge (July 24 1807 New York City – 7 August 1867 Łódź, Poland) was an American stage actor who made his career largely on the London stage. He is the only actor of African American descent among the 33 actors of the English stage with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Aldridge's first professional acting experience was in the early 1820s with the company associated with the African Grove, where he debuted as Rolla in Pizzaro; he went on to play Shakespeare's Romeo and later became a rather famous Hamlet.
Charles Mathews famously imitated and parodied the African Grove's star James Hewlett performing Hamlet in a performance Mathews called "The African Tragedian" (part of a larger worked titled "A Trip To America"). Aldridge would later gain fame by claiming to be "The African Tragedian" on whom the performance was based. According to Bernth Lindfors , professor of English and African literatures at the University of Texas, Mathews went to the African Theater and invited Hewlett do a private performance for him, and then invented a story about a black actor butchering Shakespeare. In Mathews' parody, Hewlett spoke the line "…and by opposing end them…" as "…and by opossum end them…", leading to a rendition of "Opossum up a Gum Tree", the de facto anthem of African Americans at the time. Aldridge denied that this had actually occurred during his performances at the African Grove; according to Eric Lott, he actually borrowed the joke back from Mathews at a later date and made exactly that transition from Hamlet to the popular song.
Confronted with the persistent disparagement and harassment that black actors had to endure in the United States, Aldridge emigrated to England, where he became a dresser to the British actor Henry Wallack. According to Shane White , author of the book "Stories of Freedom in Black New York," the only American stage anyone in England had ever heard of at this time was the stage that Mathews had performed, and Aldridge associated himself with that. Bernth Lindfors says "when Aldridge starts appearing on the stage at the Royalty Theatre, he’s just called a gentleman of color. But when he moves over to the Royal Coburg, he’s advertised in the first playbill as the American Tragedian from the African Theater New York City. The second playbill refers to him as 'The African Tragedian.' So everybody goes to the theater expecting to laugh because this is the man they think Mathews saw in New York City." Instead Aldridge performed scenes from Othello that stunned reviewers. According to a monograph written by Herbert Marshall at Southern Illinois University, one critic wrote "In Othello (Aldridge) delivers the most difficult passages with a degree of correctness that surprises the beholder." He gradually progressed to larger roles; by 1825, he had top billing at London's Coburg Theatre as Oronoko in A Slave's Revenge, soon to be followed by the role of Gambia in The Slave and the title role of Shakespeare's Othello. He also played major roles in plays such as The Castle Spectre and The Padlock and played several roles of specifically white characters, including Captain Dirk Hatteraick and Bertram in Rev. R. C. Maturin's Bertram, the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III, and Shylock in ''The Merchant of Venice.
He first toured to continental Europe in 1852, with successes in Germany (where he was presented to the Duchess Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and performed for Frederick William IV of Prussia) and in Budapest. An 1858 tour took him to Serbia and to Imperial Russia, where he became acquainted with Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Shchepkin and Taras Shevchenko. He mastered Russian well enough to perform roles in that language.
Now of an appropriate age, he played (in England) the title role of King Lear for the first time. He purchased some property in England, toured Russia again (1862), and applied for British citizenship (1863). His wife Margaret died in 1864; on April 20 1865, he married his former mistress, the self-styled Swedish countess Amanda von Brandt, with whom he already had a child, Ira Daniel. They had four more children: Irene Luranah, Ira Frederick, Amanda, all of whom would go on to musical careers; and Rachael, who was born shortly after Aldridge's death and who died in infancy.
Aldridge spent most of his final years in Russia and continental Europe, interspersed with occasional visits to England. A planned return to the post-Civil-War United States was prevented by his death in August 1867 while visiting Łódź, Poland. His remains were buried in the city's Evangelical Cemetery; 23 years passed before a proper tombstone was erected. His grave is tended by the Society of Polish Artists of Film and Theatre.