A Southwark author has written a groundbreaking new book about the history of black British theatre.
Stephen Bourne’s Deep Are the Roots: Trailblazers Who Changed Black British Theatre, covers a 150-year period from 1825, when a black actor played Othello, the greatest black character in a Shakespeare play, on the British stage for the first time.
Ira Aldridge, an American actor, had a difficult time when he first came to this country as a teenager, although he moved to London to avoid oppression at home in the US. He married a white English woman called Margaret Gill, which angered pro-slavery activists in London, according to Mr Bourne.
The slave trade had been abolished in the British Empire 1807, although slavery in British colonies was not finally outlawed until 1833. According to Mr Bourne’s book, this made it difficult for Aldridge to establish himself on the London stage and he was forced to move out of the capital to build up his reputation.
He played Othello for the first time in his career in 1825 in Brighton, and toured provincial British theatres with great success for several years before returning to London in 1833. He played Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. According to Mr Bourne, “it was the first time a Black actor had appeared in a Shakespeare tragedy in a first-rate London theatre”.
He received hostile reviews: one newspaper quoted in Mr Bourne’s book said: “Aldridge shall be jammed to atoms by the relentless power of our critical “BATTERING RAM” if his name is not immediately withdrawn from the Bills!!!”
Aldridge persevered and performed as Othello again at the Surrey Theatre on Blackfriars Road. He also toured extensively in Europe. Ira eventually died in Poland aged 60 in 1867.
Mr Bourne has also uncovered the story of a black American actor from the nineteenth century who lived near Camberwell Grove. Paul Molyneaux came to London and performed as Othello in a theatre in Kilburn in the north-west of the capital in 1883. The production got bad reviews, at least in part down to its mostly-amateur cast, which frustrated Molyneaux.
Molyneaux appears to have moved to Glasgow, where he married a white British woman, but eventually left the country. He died in 1891, probably because of a brain tumour.
Mr Bourne describes Paul as ‘the forgotten Othello’ because historians have often claimed that Aldridge was the last black man to play the character in Britain for about 60 years, before Paul Robeson in the 1930s.
But he has not been forgotten by his British descendants, who have done their own research into their pioneering relative. Molyneaux’s grandson lives in Wales and his great-granddaughter in Devon. His ten-year-old great-great-grandson has recently performed in his first Shakespeare play.
The family told Mr Bourne: “It has given us great pleasure to know that Paul’s achievements are not forgotten and that his life and experiences will inspire other young actors to keep battling against disadvantage and discrimination. As a family we are all very proud to have had such brave and inspiring ancestors.”
The book is also deeply personal. In the opening chapter Mr Bourne shares the story of how he was first introduced to the world of black British theatre and other art forms by a friend, Sonia, with Caribbean roots who worked in the Peckham unemployment office in the 1980s, against the backdrop of the riots in south London. They remained friends and stayed in touch for decades before Sonia died aged just 45.
Other chapters include discussions of the twentieth century actor and singer Paul Robeson, the experiences of black students at the famous RADA acting school from the 1930s to the 1960s and the influential playwrights Mustapha Matura, Michael Abbensetts and Alfred Fagon, among many other stories.
Deep Are the Roots: Trailblazers Who Changed Black British Theatre is released on October 7, to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Mr Bourne’s first book about black British history. He is giving several talks to promote the book, including at Camberwell Library on October 25 at 7pm.