A blue plaque has been unveiled in Coventry city centre, celebrating the life and achievements of the African American actor Ira Aldridge (below), on the 150th anniversary of his death.
Aldridge was the first black actor to play Othello on the English stage, and in 1828 made history by becoming the manager of Coventry's only purpose-built theatre for a season, the first black artist ever to run a British theatre.
Coventry's Lord Mayor, Councillor Tony Skipper, unveiled the plaque on the site of the city's first theatre, more recently the BHS store in Upper Precinct. Guest of honour at the ceremony was Earl Cameron CBE, the Bermudan-born stage and film actor celebrating his 100th birthday this month.
As a young actor in the 1940s, Cameron suffered problems with his voice and received help from Aldridge's daughter Amanda, then working as a music teacher and voice coach, after her career as an opera singer was cut short by laryngitis.
Councillor Skipper said that Coventry had given Aldridge, for the few months that he spent here, the stage to speak out against the inhumanity he'd seen around him. Shortly afterwards, the city petitioned Parliament to abolish slavery, a move that might well have owed something to Aldridge's influence.
Born in New York in 1807, Ira Aldridge left America after experiencing persistent discrimination as a young actor. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, working in England, where critics dubbed him the African Roscius, after a legendary actor in Ancient Rome, and on the Continent, where he enjoyed star status in Russia and Prussia.
He died in Poland in August 1867, just weeks before he was due to return to the United States to star in mixed-race productions after the Civil War. He is the only actor of African-American descent to feature among 33 actors of the English stage honoured with bronze plaques at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford.
The creation of a permanent memorial to Aldridge's work in Coventry was organised by Professor Tony Howard, who heads the University of Warwick's Multicultural Shakespeare Project. It's the climax of events supported by the university, the Belgrade Theatre, the Coventry City of Culture 2021 bid, Shakespeare's Globe and the 2016 Being Human Festival.
At the unveiling were Professor Tony Howard (left), Lord Mayor Councillor Tony Skipper, and Earl Cameron (centre) with his wife Barbara.