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The Theatre

Black Actors

Although Black stage performers are not often mentioned in theatrical records, the few examples found to date have secured these Africans and Asians a place in the history of British entertainment.

A number of Black people were connected with the famous British actor David Garrick. Ignatius Sancho was employed briefly in Garrick's theatrical company, but it is not clear whether he ever had an acting part. The names of Jack Beef, a Black servant, and various others appear from time to time.

Ira Aldridge in costume as Mungo in 'The Padlock' - opens new window
Playing the Servant and the Fool?
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Billy Waters

One character who performed on the stage was Billy Waters, who also busked outside the Adelphi Theatre, in the Strand, in London. He appeared before an audience as himself in Life in London at the Adelphi and at the Caledonian Theatre in Edinburgh. Billy's lines were to be spoken with a strong African accent, and he also sang these words of a song:

That all men are beggars, 'tis very plain you see:
Only some they are of lowly, and some of high degree.

Another Black entertainer, African Sal, performed with Billy Waters in Life in London in 1822. African Sal was a dancer, and he partnered a female dancer called Dusty Bob.

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Ira Aldridge

Much more is known about the Black actor Ira Aldridge. An American, Aldridge was descended from an African clergyman. He developed his enthusiasm for acting while still a youth, at the African Free School in New York. He found there was little opportunity to use his acting skills in America, so decided to travel to England.

It was on board the ship bound for Liverpool, in 1825, that Aldridge became personal attendant to the British actor James Wallack, and the seeds of his future career were sown. Two years later he appeared on the London stage. On his first night at the Royal Coburg Theatre, his performance was reported as 'novel…excited much attention…Aldridge had a very excellent conception of the main character in The Revolt of Surinam or a Slave's Revenge'.

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Ira Aldridge married a woman from Yorkshire, Margaret Gill, and the marriage provided Aldridge with the valuable support he needed to overcome some of the negativity he encountered. The Times was highly critical and dismissive of the Black actor's work. Aldridge was working at a time when attempts were being made to end slavery in the colonies. The pro-slavery lobby organised a campaign to destroy the actor's career.

After playing major roles in Oroonoko (Thomas Southerne's dramatisation of the novel by Aphra Behn) and The Ethiopian, Aldridge took to touring the provinces, and reached a high point with his portrayal of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Dublin. On his return to London's Covent Garden, once again to play the Moor in Othello, The Times was scathing yet again. But this time it was not about Aldridge's performance, but because 'of the indecency of a lady-like girl like Miss Ellen Tree being subjected to the indignity of being pawed by Mr Wallack's black servant…'.

Ira Aldridge as Othello (review) - opens new window
The 'African Roscius' with
a 'Vulgarly Foreign' Accent
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Nicknamed the 'African Roscius' after the famous Roman actor, Aldridge continued in his chosen profession. He was encouraged no doubt by unprejudiced reviews both in Europe and England, such as the one from the Standard that described him as having 'the fire and spirit of a first-rate actor'. Described as a gentle man of manners, Ira Aldridge was also very aware of the effect slavery had on the African psyche and this contributed to the passion with which he played his roles.

Although we do not know all the Black actors by name, we know of their presence on the English stage. Whether they were identified by racist terms such as 'Sooty Polly' (in The Beggar's Opera) or a 'Woolly Blackamoor', Black men and women entertainers would have had to overcome a considerable amount of prejudice.

Ira Aldridge as Zanga - opens new window
Ira Aldridge as Zanga
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References and Further Reading

Edwards, P., and Walvin, J., Black Personalities in the Era of the Slave Trade, London, 1983

Shyllon, F., Black People in Britain 1555-1833, London, New York, Ibadan, 1977

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