Being Human helps earn recognition for historic UK black cultural icon

Thursday 3 August 2017

Guest of honour:  Bermudan film star Earl Cameron CBE (right), who was trained by Ira Aldridge’s daughter Amanda

Britain's first ever black theatre manager, Ira Aldridge, has been commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of the theatre he once ran in Coventry. And it wouldn’t have happened without the School of Advanced Study’s Being Human festival.

He was also the first black actor to play Othello, and was the subject of the University of Warwick’s event, ‘Against prejudice: Ira Aldridge in Coventry 1828’, in last year’s festival (a nine-day UK-wide celebration of humanities research). Organised by Professor Tony Howard, who leads Warwick’s Multicultural Shakespeare project, the event told the story of a man who broke through racial barriers.

Ira Aldridge 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.

The blue plaque, unveiled on 3 August, celebrates the inspirational achievements of one of the greatest actors of the 19th century, who died 150 years ago this year. And it also testifies to the spirit of openness which allowed a Midlands city to welcome a refugee from racism and make Ira Aldridge an historic UK black cultural icon.

‘That isn't only an historical achievement, it's an encouragement to strengthen diversity in this country today,’ said Professor Howard. ‘If he could run a playhouse, very successfully, in 1828, at the height of slavery, surely boards and trustees should take notice and give our cultural centres more BAME leadership today. That's the point of history – to remind us all of what's possible.

‘This is a very exciting moment, and there has been massive support from Warwick University, the Belgrade Theatre, many community groups, the Coventry City of Culture Bid 2021 – I could go on. It wouldn't have happened without the Being Human festival. It provided the seed funding that encouraged me to approach the university and the theatre to suggest collaborating on an event last November. And that in turn triggered the campaign to put a permanent reminder in the heart of the city, in the 1960s shopping precinct. Literally, it wouldn't have happened without Being Human – the great kick-starter.’

Now in its fourth year, the nine-day Being Human festival is organised by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. It takes place in November and, every year, teems over with more than 300 activities highlighting the richness and vitality of humanities research and the ways it benefits society. They range from films and plays to exhibitions and talks, most of them free.

For 2017 Being Human is going global with a series of international activities – in Melbourne, Singapore, Rome and Paris. In the UK it runs from 17 to 25 November with events exploring the theme of ‘lost and found’.

Find out more about the festival at https://beinghumanfestival.org/ and follow the latest news on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest. 

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe will present Against PrejudiceA Celebration of Ira Aldridge on 19 September, 7pm.
This will include a revival of the drama-documentary (Belgrade Theatre November 2016) telling Aldridge’s story, followed by a discussion with historians and performers sharing their perspectives on Ira Aldridge’s importance. With David Olusoga, historian and presenter of the BBC’s flagship series, Black and British: A Forgotten History.